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  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Archive for the ‘Book News’ Category

Salk and His Polio Vaccine? This Woman Figured It Out First.

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 26, 2023


Her name was Isabel Morgan (1911–1996). She was a virologist at Johns Hopkins University. And in 1947, she demonstrated the first effective polio immunization in rhesus monkeys. Morgan had devised a formalin-inactivated vaccine, at a time when most polio researchers believed such a vaccine could not possibly work.

“She converted us and that was quite a feat,” one of her many male colleagues conceded.

That vaccine was the forerunner of the one Jonas Salk introduced eight years later in humans.

So how come you’ve never heard of Isabel Morgan?

Read her story and those of other public health pioneers in Ending Epidemics–A History of Escape from Contagion (due out April 12, MIT Press).

Advance praise for Ending Epidemics: “A timely and highly readable account of humanity’s struggles and progress in the fight against infectious disease. Set across three centuries, from the birth of immunology to the antibiotic revolution, Conniff draws on the personal stories behind these great medical and scientific leaps. A fascinating read with powerful lessons for tackling today’s—and indeed future—epidemics.” — Peter Piot, Former Director and Handa Professor of Global Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Public Health & Disease Prevention, Upcoming Events | Leave a Comment »

ENDING EPIDEMICS: Announcing My New Book

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 7, 2022

If you’re one of the good people who have enjoyed my previous books, you could be a great help with my new one, Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion. The Barnes and Noble deal has expired, but pre-orders are still an enormous help. Here are few early notices for the book, to give you an idea why pre-ordering might be a good idea for you:

Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer, writes: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail.  I think the book is a masterpiece.”  —

Paul Offit, M.D., author of You Bet Your Life and other books on public health, calls it “A dramatic, page-turning account of the grim, never-ending war waged by infections on humankind.”

Pre-ordering sends a big message of reader support to bookstores & marketing folks. Please also spread the word with your friends, social media contacts, and your local bookstore. It can make or break this book.

You can read more about the book from the publisher MIT Press: “Ending Epidemics tells the story behind “the mortality revolution,” the dramatic transformation not just in our longevity, but in the character of childhood, family life, and human society. Richard Conniff recounts the moments of inspiration and innovation, decades of dogged persistence, and, of course, periods of terrible suffering that stir individuals, institutions, and governments to act in the name of public health.”

You can also read a sample chapter here, about two forgotten women whose work saves tens of thousands of small children every year from death by whooping cough.

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Posted by Richard Conniff on June 6, 2020

In my latest book, Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion, due out in April 2023, I promised to supply more detailed endnotes on line. I’m up to chapter 11, and continuing to add. Here’s what I’ve got so far, with URLs where possible:


p. ix

“Some crematories”: A. Feuer and W.K. Rashbaum. “‘We Ran Out of Space’: Bodies Pile Up as N.Y. Struggles to Bury Its Dead,” The New York Times, April 2, 2020. The version I quote was an early draft. Final version accessed on September 23, 2020:

p. ix-x

“Polio, for instance”:  S.W. Roush and T.V. Murphy, “Historical Comparisons of Morbidity and Mortality for Vaccine-Preventable Diseases in the United States,” JAMA 298, no. 18 (2007): 2155–2163, DOI: 10.1001/jama.298.18.2155 .  See also CDC Global Health – Polio – Our Progress. (2017, November 03).

“Smallpox still infected“: S. Ochmann and M. Roser. “Smallpox,” Published online at (2018): [Online Resource]

“Measles killed”: Roush and Murphy, “Historical Comparisons.”

“Worldwide life expectancy”: Max Roser, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Hannah Ritchie (2013) – “Life Expectancy”. Published online at Retrieved from:

“Rubella in the 1960s”:

p. xi

Diphtheria “killed more than three thousand”: Roush & Murphy “Historical Comparisons.”

“Winston Churchill”:  W. Churchill, Europe Unite: Speeches, 1947 and 1948 (Boston: Cassell, 1950), 138.

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Giants in the Earth: How Mammoths Changed Our World

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 29, 2017

(Illustration: National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

Discovering the Mammoth is one of those books that make you wonder about the author as much as about his topic. John J. McKay writes that he got started with a single blog post aiming to establish “a chronology of what was known about mammoths and when.” Or rather, he got started because he noticed, while indulging his “great love of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas,” that “lost history theories”—think Atlantis, flood geology and rogue planets—“all used frozen mammoths as proof positive of their ideas.”

Mr. McKay, who describes himself on his blog as “an underemployed, grumpy, and aging liberal who lives in the Great Northwest”—that is, Alaska—soon began obsessively collecting facts about these great, hairy pachyderms. He became the “mammoth guy” to his neighbors and apparently also to his long-suffering (now ex-) wife.

The resulting book is unfortunately more the chronology that Mr. McKay set out to write in the first place and less the thrilling “Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science” touted in the subtitle. Mr. McKay’s background as a technical writer shows in his clear sentences, with one carefully authenticated fact logically following another from beginning to end. It also shows, however, in the absence of color, scene setting or a driving narrative arc. And yet I found the book oddly compelling.

Mr. McKay makes the case that, beginning about 1600, mammoths and their mastodon cousins, appearing in bits and pieces from beneath the ice and earth, became “a focusing problem for a scientific revolution.” They were the starting point for sweeping changes in geology and comparative anatomy and in the ways we think about life on Earth.

Scholars could reason their way around Read the rest of this entry »

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House of Lost Worlds: “Loved This Book! It’s All There”

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 30, 2016

Fire set to discourage an 1870 Peabody Museum fossil hunt in the American West.

Fire set to discourage an 1870 Peabody Museum fossil hunt in the American West.

House of Lost Worlds coverIt has been amazingly difficult to get the mainstream press to review House of Lost Worlds, unlike anything I have experienced with all my previous books.

Editors seem to make a snap judgement that it’s just the story of one museum, with no significance outside New Haven.  They do not know what they are missing.

Here’s how historian William Hosley reacted in a review on Facebook today:

Finished Richard Conniff‘s ‪#‎HouseofLostWorld‬s – a 150th anniversary story about Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Spellbound. Riveting. Best book on any aspect of museums I’ve ever read – and the history of museums is one of my favorite topics. Convinces me that Peabody is CT’s most important museum. If I was teaching a survey course on American History this would be on the syllabus. What a bold stroke to tell the story of an institution as

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At Play in the Fields of Fliskets, Zant, and Fred

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 28, 2013

Jawsius charlottei (Illustration: Calene Luczo)

Jawseus charlottei (Illustration: Calene Luczo/

I happened to come across two lovely poems this morning about the challenge of naming the animals.  The first is by John Hollander.*

                                 Adam’s Task

And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field … GEN. 2:20

Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
Glurd; thou, whitestap, lurching through
The high-grown brush; thou, pliant-footed,
Implex; thou, awagabu.

Every burrower, each flier
Came for the name he had to give:
Gay, first work, ever to be prior,
Not yet sunk to primitive.

Thou, verdle; thou, McFleery’s pomma;
Thou; thou; thou—three types of grawl;
Thou, flisket; thou, kabasch; thou, comma-
Eared mashawk; thou, all; thou, all.

Were, in a fire of becoming,
Laboring to be burned away,
Then work, half-measuring, half-humming,
Would be as serious as play.

Thou, pambler; thou, rivarn; thou, greater
Wherret, and thou, lesser one;
Thou, sproal; thou, zant; thou, lily-eater.
Naming’s over. Day is done.

The second poem comes from Anthony Hecht, in roughly the same spirit:

                      Naming the Animals

Having commanded Adam to bestow
Names upon all the creatures, God withdrew
To empyrean palaces of blue
That warm and windless morning long ago,
And seemed to take no notice of the vexed
Look on the young man’s face as he took thought
Of all the miracles the Lord had wrought,
Now to be Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Funny Business, Species Classification, Upcoming Events | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Jabberwocky World

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 27, 2012

The March-April issue of Audubon magazine features this lovely illustration of a hydra, a monster from the Classical imagination, together with an excerpt from The Species Seekers, about the beginning of the age of discovery:

At the start, naturalists knew no more than a few thousand species, and often had the basic facts wrong. Even educated people still inhabited a jabberwocky world in which monsters abounded, and one species could slide uncertainly into another. Our own ancestors, just eight or ten generations ago, still thought that dog-headed humans lived in distant lands, probably based on early descriptions of baboons. When the fossil skeleton of a giant salamander turned up, a learned Swiss physician identified it as a sinner drowned in Noah’s Flood. Naturalists then could not even clearly distinguish some plants from animals and passionately debated whether one could transform into the other, and back again. (It’s a measure of the state of knowledge then that they thought of themselves simply as naturalists or “natural philosophers.” The words “scientist” and “biologist” did not yet exist.)

That would all change, as a small band of explorers set out to break through the mystery and confusion. The great age of discovery about the natural world was a period of less than 200 years, from the eighteenth century into the twentieth. It got its start in 1735, when the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus invented a system for identifying and classifying species. He was a charismatic teacher, both ribald and full of religious fervor for the wonders of the natural world. His words inspired 19 of his own students to undertake voyages of exploration. Half of these “apostles,” as he called them, would die overseas in the service of his mission. Explorers from other nations, also inspired by Linnaeus, soon followed, taking the hunt for new species to the farthest ends of the Earth. They made the discovery of species one of the most important and enduring achievements of the colonial era.That word “discovery” may stick momentarily in the modern reader’s craw. Local people had often known many of these “new” species for thousands of years and in far more intimate detail than any newcomer could hope to achieve. But done properly, the process of collecting a species and describing it in scientific terms made that knowledge available everywhere. Making it available in Europe was, to be sure, the primary objective. But in the process, the species seekers introduced humanity for the first time to our fellow travelers on this planet, from beetles to blue-footed boobies. And gradually we stumbled from the security of a world centered on our species, created for our comfort and salvation, to a world in which we are one among many species.

It would be difficult to overstate how profoundly the species seekers changed the world along the way. Many of us are alive today, for instance, because naturalists identified obscure species that later turned out to cause malaria, yellow fever, typhus, and other epidemic diseases. (This is one of the recurring lessons from the history of species discovery: Useless knowledge has an insidious way of leading people in useful directions. Many mothers would despair, for instance, to have a child make a career out of the study of Chinese horseshoe bats of the genus Rhinolophus. But the subject took on global importance when these bats turned out to be the source of SARS, or sudden acute respiratory syndrome, which threatened to become pandemic.)

The discovery of species also shifted the foundations of knowledge and belief. Though early species seekers typically set out to glorify God by celebrating his Creation, the paradoxical outcome of their work was Read the rest of this entry »

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“Thoroughly Entertaining Adventure Stories”

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 31, 2011

The TLS asked its reviewers to suggest their Best Books of the Year and Richard Fortey of the Natural History Museum in London named The Species Seekers.   Here’s what he had to say:

The Species Seekers by Richard Conniff (Norton). Ecotourists today expect to be whisked off to remote locations to enjoy intimate views of wildlife from purpose-built hides. But explorers and naturalists formerly risked their lives and their sanity in pursuit of exotic species. Their prize was the thrill of novelty: to be the first to name what are still referred to as “species new to science.” In the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries, explorers thought nothing of battling with malaria, starvation or shipwreck to bring home the prize of a beautiful but unnamed bird or butterfly. Richard Conniff provides a thoroughly entertaining series of adventure stories revealing these taxonomic heroes, amply peppered with tales of rogues and nadmen. Many of these scientists are as exotic as the species they sought to discover.

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On Becoming a Science Writer

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 9, 2011

It seems to me now that my entire science education consisted of one year, seventh grade, with Dr. Kowalski, who, among other ingenious assignments, had each of us purchase a whole chicken, strip it to the bone, and then reassemble the skeleton.

After that, I had a high school physics course taught by a summertime Good Humor Man, and a biology course taught by a newly-consecrated Irish Christian Brother, who found alm0st everything in biology deeply mortifying (and honestly who can blame him?). In college, I visited Science Hill just twice, first as a protester, and next for my job as a projectionist. I mostly studied poetry.

My turnabout came at the age of 25, when a magazine agreed to let me write about mosquitoes, and I suddenly found myself appalled and delighted by the incredible surgical tools in a mosquito’s proboscis. I also managed to work a poem (by D.H. Lawrence) into the story, a practice I have tried to indulge ever since.

Other stories about animals and behavior followed. Dr. Kowalski’s assignment even came back to me, when I found myself in Venezuela testing chicken caracasses on piranha populations, for my book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals.  (They could be a lot quicker than me at the business of stripping a carcass to the bone.)

My advice to prospective science writers?

Marry money.

Sorry, just kidding. Read poetry. We need more people to recognize that the “two cultures” idea is bunk. And, really, take more science courses than I did. Lots more. I hear they are better now.


Posted in Book News | 1 Comment »

Someone Went Hungry. Someone Died. Someone Rejoiced.

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 7, 2011

Fyrefly’s Book Blog posted a very kind review of The Species Seekers today.  She starts out with a quote that explains what the book is about much better than I have been doing lately.   I apparently wrote the quote on p. 334, but time flies and memory with it:

“It is the subtext to those endless drawers of carefully arranged specimens in museums around the world: Someone had collected each specimen; killed it; skinned it; stuffed it, set it, or put it in preservative; pencil-scratched a label for it; carried it cross-country; shipped it home; studied it; and classified it – and then repeated this ritual over and over, countless millions of times. For each specimen, someone had gone hungry and sleepless. Someone alone in a remote and hostile territory had wept. Someone had perhaps drowned, been murdered, suffered malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, or typhus. Someone had certainly cursed and complained, though not so much as we might expect. Someone had said, “Hunh!” And someone had rejoiced.”

Here’s part of the review (I think the reviewer’s name is Nicki):

I’ve had a growing interest in the history of science, particularly as it relates to exploration, for a while now, and The Species Seekersdid a really excellent job of putting a lot of the bits and pieces that I’ve acquired from other books into a broader context. This book’s got the perfect balance of breadth and depth; Conniff brings a number of key figures in natural history to life through chapter-long mini-biographies, but is also always careful to keep each person’s story in its relevant social and scientific setting. I also found the timeline very easy to keep straight; I often have trouble when history books jump backwards and forwards through time, but in this case Conniff keeps things mostly linear, and is very good at providing callbacks to previous chapters when necessary.

The writing is also a nice blend, using plenty of historical sources while remaining lively and engaging. It’s also full of great anecdotes, and I wound up learning more than I was expecting to. I was familiar with Linneas and Cuvier and Darwin and Wallace, of course, but there were a lot of other names that I’d heard in passing but didn’t know the story behind – Bates, of Batesian mimicry, for one – and plenty more cases where the people and stories Conniff included were new to me. There were also a lot of fun trivia facts. For example, even though chimps and gorillas are the most familiar non-human apes today, for a long time, all apes were referred to as “orangs,” because the Dutch East India Company meant that Malaysia and Borneo were explored long before Africa was. I also liked the idea that the budding study of human parasitology helped ease the acceptance of evolutionary theory, since people were uncomfortable with the idea that God purposefully created things like liver flukes and roundworms to torment them. And, my favorite: based on the tooth shape (which is all early scientists had to go on), mammoths were originally assumed to be carnivorous, and Thomas Jefferson wrote lengthy descriptions of rampaging mammoths wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting herd of bison and doing battle with twelve-foot-tall lions (based on the claw of what would turn out to be a giant ground sloth).

The reviewer also has a few very reasonable caveats.  But feel free to skip them (I may be prejudiced) and take a look at the entertaining feature  on vocabulary from the book.  I believe in plain words, preferably short.  But apparently I quote some whoppers.,

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