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My Top 10 Public Health Books

While in medical school, the idea of doing anything that wasn’t directly tied to a test or a board exam seemed superfluous, if not impossible. But despite how much I enjoy learning, my textbooks quickly became blinders. Studying had replaced nearly all of my hobbies and I became less creative, less interesting and surprisingly, less productive. To combat this, I made an effort to read for fun. That being said, I am still a medical nerd at heart so my idea of a fun book is always nonfiction and usually public health related. As you can tell by the list, I am particularly interested in several topics surrounding infectious disease

Below I have ranked my top 10 public health books (ok some aren't exactly public health). I read them all between my acceptance to medical school and my graduation and would encourage everyone (medical or not) to pick one out!

While this book can be a bit dry and dense, it was important for me to fight through. I picked this up because I’m generally naive when it comes to the balance (?) between American healthcare policy, insurance, hospitals, and providers. But this book proved to be a great starting point for those who want to learn more about the economics behind the post-ACA American healthcare system. It provides a high-level view of most topics while diving down into meticulous details only when necessary. Yes, it may not be uplifting to learn about a highly dysfunctional system, but Rosenthal provides hope by recommending reasonable changes without coming across as overly political charged.

A clinician solves problems 1:1 with a patient. A public health expert solves problems within a system. Atul Gwande straddles the two. He takes what he has learned about death in his practice and comments on how society as a whole can treat death with more respect. Nobody is immune from these lessons. Just because healthcare workers are around death more often does not mean we handle it with the respect and dignity it deserves. How many healthcare workers have you met that personally plan on spending their last days outside of a hospital? What should that tell us? Atul Gwande is an author worth exploring in depth, but this is my favorite book of his.

The 1918 Influenza was one of the deadliest pandemic in human history, and certainly the deadliest of the last 500 years. It is simply a must read for anyone interested in emerging infectious diseases and outbreak response. This book is a granular look at the outbreak and the coinciding response. In order to provide the complete picture, there is a thorough explanation of the political, educational, and socioeconomic landscape of WW1 and the early 1900s. The influenza provides an interesting lens to view this time period in a much different light than I understood it in high school history class.

7. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

You will - and should - find this book on every recommended reading list for medical professionals. The story is incredible and inspiring but what truly sets this book apart is how talented a writer Kalanithi is. He dives into complex issues of how we view life and death all while maintaining readability. Most physicians who write books are little more than entertaining story tellers, but Kalanithi is truly an author of the highest caliber. Drink a pot of coffee and read the whole book in one sitting. Give this book to the new intern. Give it to your partner. Give it to your Mom for her birthday. This is a book for everyone.

This is another classic that can be enjoyed by nearly anyone. Paul Farmer is arguably the most well-known global health leader in the world and for good reason; he has devoted his life to some of the most pressing and difficult problems in medicine. This book serves as a great introduction to the work of Farmer. It shows what an inspirational character is, gives solid insight into the organized chaos that is his schedule, and provides a fascinating origin story for his organization, Partners in Health.

Mountains beyond Mountains is about who Paul Farmer is, but this book is about what he believes. He pulls from his medical, epidemiological and anthropological knowledge to craft this manifesto on how poverty and infectious disease are interconnected. It goes without saying that those in poverty to not have access to the same level of healthcare, but Farmer goes several layers past that to look at dozens of factors that influence a persons life before they even become ill. He highlights two diseases in particular, HIV and TB, which due to the global burden of disease and their pervasiveness, makes this 20 years old book applicable on many levels today. I could read Mountains beyond Mountains somewhat mindlessly as it is a captivating story…but this book requires focus as Farmer writes at a high level.

This is not a public health book but I enjoyed it so much that I can justify it making the list. The book follows the life and legacy of Sergio Viera de Mello, a true maverick in the world of UN diplomatic affairs. While responding to nearly every major international crisis over several decades, Sergio wrestles with the complex interplay between humanitarian aid, human rights crisis, peacekeeping, civil wars, and nation building. While there is little to no discussion of medicine in this book, it helps elucidate the UN decision making process over the past several decades which undoubtably has a large impact on global health progress. Above all, this book it is about true leadership.

There is a decent documentary about Sergio’s life directed by Greg Baker. But please (please!) skip the Netflix/Hollywood biopic. Talented actors play out an embarrassing script that tells a love story and has little to do with Sergio’s true legacy.

Chris Murray started his career asking some of the most basic global health questions – how many people die each day? What diseases are killing people? What diseases am I at highest risk of getting? – but realized there was no single repository for finding this data. His bold work and personality often clashed with the largest health institutions in the world, but he is a visionary who would not be deterred. His legacy began with developing the metric Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY) and publishing the world famous and widely cited Global Burden of Disease study. He now runs the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) – a health metric powerhouse/thinktank that is recently responsible for some of the most reliable COVID-19 models.

The overuse of antibiotics is a concept that (thankfully) has found its way to the public lexicon. But what is fascinating about Dr. Blaser’s work is that is ties these medications to chronic health conditions that are mysteriously on the rise – allergies, asthma, obesity, etc. 90% of what I read in this book seems like it is backed by solid science and 10% seemed to be conjecture. I now actively seek more books that follow this “90/10 rule”. It is educational but also exciting and I tip my cap to Dr. Blaser for not only an astute scientist, but a bold innovator challenging conventional wisdom.

If you are curious about Dr. Blaser’s research, he gives a solid 60-minute lecture highlighting his work.

This is one of those books that is so interesting that I wanted to reread it before I even finished it. It is an extremely well-researched recount of the most devastating and interesting zoonotic diseases in history. David Quammen is not an arm-chair author but tells stories of catching bats in Southeast Asia and tracking chimps in the heart of Africa. He immerses himself in a global hunt for answers and his book reads more like an adventure novel than a stuffy academic piece.

His most recent book, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, was a bit of a snooze – even coming from someone who loves molecular biology. But he is well known for one of his earlier works, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, which I am eager to read at some point.


What books did I miss?! I would love to hear from you!

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Great list. I would also recommend "Well: What We Need to Talk About When We Talk About Health" by Sandro Galea, the current Dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, which is a relatively quick and simple read about different social determinants of health. I would especially suggest it as required reading for students taking an Into to Public Health or similar course.

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