Book Review: The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

How will the world end? Nuclear war? (thanks Putin) Alien invasion? (Fermi paradox until it’s not) or…. smallpox outbreak from a bioweapons experiment gone wrong?

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How will the world end? Nuclear war? (thanks Putin) Alien invasion? (Fermi paradox until it’s not) or…. smallpox outbreak from a bioweapons experiment gone wrong?

About the Book

Title: The Demon in the Freezer: The Terrifying Truth About the Threat from Bioterrorism

Author: Richard Preston

Published: 2017

Genre: nonfiction, medical, biology

My Rating: 5 stars

Other Books by Richard Preston:

The Hot Zone


The Premise

Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):

The first major bioterror event in the United States–the anthrax attacks in October 2001–was a clarion call for scientists who work with “hot” agents to find ways of protecting civilian populations against biological weapons. In The Demon in the Freezer, his first nonfiction book since The Hot Zone, Richard Preston takes us into the heart of Usamriid, the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, once the headquarters of the U.S. biological weapons program and now the epicenter of national biodefense.


My Thoughts

Smallpox: if you are like me, you probably don’t give much thought to it.
The association in my mind is purely to the pages of dusty history books and that documentary my history teacher made us do a packet about (“Guns, Germs & Steel”) in middle school.

I knew that smallpox was a disease that was pretty bad, and I also knew it was one of the causes of the collapse of the civilizations in South and Central America after the arrival of European conquistadors who brought the pathogen with them. I also knew that smallpox was not something to worry about anymore, thanks to the miracles of modern science.

Well, scratch that last part. Thanks to the miracles of modern science, it looks like we actually DO have to worry about smallpox again…

This book goes over several disparate topics:
– the history of smallpox
– the biology of smallpox
– the eradication of smallpox
– the bio-engineering of smallpox in the lab (apparently it’s really easy to do! sleep well tonight)
– anthrax
– the 2001 anthrax attacks

I’d say the main problem with the book is the way that it jumps around between different topics sporadically, and at the beginning, the link it makes between anthrax and smallpox is not made extremely clear.

Some takeaways:
– will biological warfare become– as Preston suggests in his conclusion paragraph– the new atomic bomb? i.e., is this the new threat of human self-annihilation?
– interesting that there was such a heated debate over whether or not to preserve smallpox in the lab vs. eliminate it as a species. Leading scientists and public health officials were conflicted because on one hand, they wanted to be rid of every particle of smallpox in the world so that it could be erased for good. However, they also didn’t know whether hostile countries might have their own clandestine stashes, or even some bio-engineered smallpox somewhere, so to get rid of our smallpox might leave us at a disadvantage.
– the animal experimentation parts. In reading past books by Richard Preston, he usually glosses over the animal cruelty that is committed during the development of treatments for horrible human diseases. In this book, he spends more time talking about the emotional implications of murdering monkeys to learn things about smallpox.

As a vegan who is also interested in medical research, the moral quandary of animal testing has tormented me for a long time.
On one hand it is so barbaric to infect innocent animals with awful diseases in order to test their effects and disturbing that humans see other primates as expendable but to do the same to members of our own species would be a reprehensible moral crime. However I also know that sometimes to make sure a medicine is safe they have to test it on animals first. I’m not up to date on the current alternative methods. But I really hope I don’t ever have to be involved in animal testing.


Have you read The Demon in the Freezer, or other books by Richard Preston? Feel free to let me know in the comments!

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