A Family History of Illness
Memory as Medicine
- PUBLISHED: March 2018
- SUBJECT LISTING: Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir, Health, History
- BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION: 280 Pages, 5.5 x 8.5 in, 20 b&w illus.
- ISBN: 9780295743035
- Publisher: University of Washington Press
While in the ICU with a near-fatal case of pneumonia, Brett Walker was asked, “Do you have a family history of illness?”—a standard and deceptively simple question that for Walker, a professional historian, took on additional meaning and spurred him to investigate his family’s medical past. In this deeply personal narrative, he constructs a history of his body to understand his diagnosis with a serious immunological disorder, weaving together his dying grandfather’s sneaking a cigarette in a shed on the family’s Montana farm, blood fractionation experiments in Europe during World War II, and nineteenth-century cholera outbreaks that ravaged small American towns as his ancestors were making their way west.
A Family History of Illness is a gritty historical memoir that examines the body’s immune system and microbial composition as well as the biological and cultural origins of memory and history, offering a startling, fresh way to view the role of history in understanding our physical selves. In his own search, Walker soon realizes that this broader scope is more valuable than a strictly medical family history. He finds that family legacies shape us both physically and symbolically, forming the root of our identity and values, and he urges us to renew our interest in the past or risk misunderstanding ourselves and the world around us.
Authors & Contributors
Brett L. Walker is Regents Professor of History at Montana State University. He is the author of The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion, 1590-1800; A Concise History of Japan; The Lost Wolves of Japan; and Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan.
Profoundly intimate and unsettling. A Family History of Illness weaves together family histories with the history of science, medical history, and a history of place.- Nancy Langston, professor of environmental history, Michigan Tech
A masterful tale, beautifully written, by a highly accomplished historian at his best. A Family History of Illness is a unique story that brings together personal memoir and medical history with a thoughtful guide and reflection on the craft of history.- Gregg Mitman, author of Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes
A uniquely talented historian fights the disease that may kill him with research, narrative, and empathy. The result is a moving memoir and profound meditation on living within the histories of our body, family, and environment.- David Armitage, Harvard University
In another tour de force, Brett Walker traces the entangled social and biological histories that produced his own medical condition and then uses this lens to show how all our histories are thus entangled. The result is a rousing defense of history itself in our age of presentism.- Julia Adeney Thomas, author of Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology
This book is terrific in five ways I can barely list here. Fascinating, literate, profound, wondrously variegated, harrowingly personal. Brett Walker, a historian with an eye for science and an ear for language, knows that he and his near-death experience are a synecdoche for the broader issues of disease, memory, selfhood, and history among us all.- David Quammen, author of Spillover