March 1, 2018
20 b&w illus.
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v2.1 Reference

A Family History of Illness

Memory as Medicine

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.

About the Author

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

9780295743035 : a-family-history-of-illness-walker
280 Pages
$26.95 USD

Other Titles by Brett L. Walker

Toxic Archipelago

Brett Walker, foreword by William Cronon
May 2011 - University of Washington Press
$30.00 USD - Paperback / softback

The Lost Wolves of Japan

Brett Walker, foreword by William Cronon
Aug 2005 - University of Washington Press
$95.00 USD - Hardback

Other Titles in BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Personal Memoirs

Light the Road of Freedom

Sahbaa Al-Barbari
Jul 2021 - The University of Alberta Press, an imprint of University of Alberta Press
$24.99 USD - Paperback / softback

Cancer with Hope

Mike Armstrong - with Eric A. Vohr - foreword by Theodore DeWeese, MD
Apr 2021 - Johns Hopkins University Press
$22.95 USD - Electronic book text
$49.95 USD - Hardback
$22.95 USD - Paperback / softback

Killing Season

Peter Canning
Apr 2021 - Johns Hopkins University Press
$27.95 USD - Hardback
$27.95 USD - Electronic book text