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Duel Without End, Stig S. Frøland

Duel Without End, Stig S. Frøland

In Duel Without End, Stig S. Frøland explores the never-ending struggle between humans and microbes in a fascinating voyage of discovery, breakthroughs, and setbacks. From Homo sapiens’ arrival in the world to the latest battles with Covid, Frøland charts the history of disease, covering all the 'big-hitters' of past and present – plagues, smallpox, influenza, STDs, and emergent diseases like Ebola – as well as those mysterious illnesses with no known microbial cause, such as sweating sicknessA serious illness during Tudor times that appeared first in England and then spread to the Continent. It is not known exactly what disease it was, but it claimed many lives between its appearance in 1485 and its disappearance after 1578.A serious illness during Tudor times that appeared first in England and then spread to the Continent. It is not known exactly what disease it was, but it claimed many lives between its appearance in 1485 and its disappearance after 1578. and the Plague of Cyprian. Beyond that, and beyond many of the standard works of popular history, Frøland traces the effects these diseases have had on individuals, societies, and empires. Careful dissection of the origins and spread of infection provides a nuanced and convincing argument for the impact not just of biological factors but for societal and ecological causes of illness, proving beyond doubt that – whatever we like to think – humanity (and its microbial ‘enemies’) is still dependent on its environment for survival. This environment provides not just the breeding ground for a range of both benign and malevolent microbes, but also the tools for harnessing or challenging them. The pursuit of health, the theories behind illness and contagion, and the history of treatment are all told with a deep understanding of medical processes.

There has been something of a rage for history-of-disease type books recently. This, of course, is perfectly understandable: given the turmoil of the last two years, it is hardly surprising that there is renewed interest in the history and impact of contagion. After all, we have all now experienced what it is like to live in fear of an infection, to have our lives turned upside down by it, be it through redundancy, social isolation, home-schooling children, or even just a lack of essentials like toilet paper. The challenge for the potential author of any new book on the subject is therefore to stand out from the crowd, to make it original and appealing, while keeping at least a semblance of academic rigour.

Duel Without End meets all of these criteria. The writing is superb, providing a wealth of detail but keeping a fast pace and a sense of humour – with pop culture references aplenty. The cover is eye-catching and the many supporting visual sources are well selected, albeit not necessarily a bonus for the squeamish.  

But what truly sets this book apart is that it is written not by a historian, but by a professor of medicine who specialises in infectious diseases. It brings a lifetime of medical knowledge to a history book, and creates a middle way between art and science: it is a crash course in epidemiology for historians, and an introduction to history for the scientists. It is informative, original, and refreshing, and the strongest argument for interdisciplinary working that I have seen. The technical detail is there, but it is not overwhelming (although it can sometimes be gruesome!) and is explained in a manner that is simple yet avoids being patronizing.

Given the quality of the scientific information – and the background of the book's author – it is surprising that there is such a good grasp of history. Admittedly, there is little by way of archival work in the way traditional historians would understand, but instead there is a well informed and thorough synthesis of understanding of disease and medicine through the ages, as well as a wide general knowledge on historic characters, states and empires. If work on infectious diseases is Frøland’s magnum opus, then studies in history are his magna otia. It is a great combination.

One can, however, occasionally sense Frøland’s frustration with traditional history, with its passion for what, to many, must seem like endless pointless debates and theorizing. This is where science and art can clash: the nature of historical research is that there are very few ‘wrong’ answers and an almost infinite number of interpretations. As one eminent historian said, ‘history that is not controversial is dead history’.More infoHugh Trevor-Roper, History: Professional and Lay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), p. 5. There is a reason that the collective noun for historians is an argumentation.

One can also feel the author’s exasperation that historians are willing to overlook what to him seem like self-evident scientific principles in discussing the causes of significant events, including the downfall of empires and defeat in war. ‘For some reason or other,’ Frøland complains, ‘historians, maybe unconsciously, seem unwilling to include the major epidemics in their analyses of historical events.’More infop. 360. In many instances, he is correct. Perhaps this is because so many of the histories – particularly those of war and empire – are histories of ‘great men’. Something as impersonal as a pandemic does not fit the narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis.A story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. of these accounts. Yet Frøland has proven the potential of his approach and, given our new insight into the impact of pandemics, perhaps now is the time to expand the way we think and write about history. In a sense then, Duel without End is much more than a popular history of disease. For professional and student historians, it encourages us to review and rethink our approach to our own craft – what is the nature of history; is it ever possible to arrive at a scientifically confirmable historical ‘fact’; can – and should – history be treated as a science as well as an art; and is it time to take off our blinkers?

Duel Without End is, then, a well-researched, brilliantly written, original, and very timely book. It combines some of the most fascinating, but often overlooked, stories from history with an understanding of infectious disease gained through a lifetime of working at the sharp end. It has made me smile and squirm in equal measure, it has made me think, it has made me re-evaluate, and it has made me glad that Stig S. Frøland has had the inspiration and time to share his knowledge with the wider world.

Author Info

Debbie Kilroy

Having read history at the University of Birmingham as an undergraduate, where I won the Kenrick Prize, I worked as a trouble-shooter in the public sector until I took a career break in 2009. Thereafter, I was able to pursue my love of history and turn it into a career, founding Get History in 2014 with the aim of bringing accessible yet high quality history-telling and debate to a wide audience. Since then, I have completed a Masters in Historical Studies at the University of Oxford, from which I received a distinction and the Kellogg College Community Engagement and Impact Award. As well as continuing to write for and expand Get History, I am now a freelance writer and historian. I have worked with Histories of the Unexpected and Inside History, and my article for Parliaments, Estates and Representation won the ICHRPI Emile Lousse essay prize (2019).

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Duel Without End, Stig S. Frøland
Duel Without End, Stig S. Frøland
out of 10

Factual Accuracy









  • +Timely and relevant
  • +Brings 'insider' knowledge of disease to the history of infection
  • +Crossover between history and medicine
  • +New and original approach
  • +Accessible, well written and well explained
  • +Good use of pictures and visual aides


  • -Not for the very squeamish
  • -Can encourage hypochondria!
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