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the Complete Review
the complete review - science

How the Cows Turned Mad

Maxime Schwartz

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To purchase How the Cows Turned Mad

Title: How the Cows Turned Mad
Author: Maxime Schwartz
Genre: Science
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 204 pages
Original in: French
Availability: How the Cows Turned Mad - US
How the Cows Turned Mad - UK
How the Cows Turned Mad - Canada
Comment les vaches sont devenues folles - France
  • French title: Comment les vaches sont devenues folles
  • Translated by Edward Schneider

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Our Assessment:

B : solid overview of Mad Cow and related diseases

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 6/3/2003 .
The Lancet A 3/5/2003 Ray Bradley
Nature . 8/5/2003 Richard E. Race
The New Eng. Jour. of Med. . 26/6/2003 Raymond P. Roos
New Scientist . 29/3/2003 Debora MacKenzie
San Francisco Chronicle . 30/3/2003 Anna Lappe
TLS A+ 26/9/2003 John Maddox

  Review Consensus:

  Recommend it

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr Schwartz is a former director of the Institut Pasteur in France, and his book maps out with great clarity the scientific investigation into how scrapie -- disease that has long been known to afflict sheep -- came to cross the species barrier to cows, and then from cows to humans." - The Economist

  • "If you would like an opportunity to learn some fascinating history and at the same time have a relaxing and interesting read of a scientific subject, this is the book for you. (...) The translation is excellent and there are only a few imprecisions in the text that are of no great consequence, other than to the purist. Schwartz acknowledges his debt to many of the leading scientists involved in research into this group of diseases, which gives a seal of approval to the relevant writings. The narrative is a balanced account of a complex story devoid of emotional and extremist views and should appeal to a wide readership." - Ray Bradley, The Lancet

  • "His history of how science unravelled this truly unorthodox disease is told well, if a bit primly, devoid as it is of scandal and gossip. (...) Schwartz does, however, badly neglect the politics of the mad cow crisis in Europe and the disease's probable worldwide spread." - Debora MacKenzie, New Scientist

  • "The book is thorough and well researched, but it's not for the scientifically faint of heart." - Anna Lappe, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(A) brilliant piece of science writing. (...) Maxime Schwartz deals with these complicated questions with consummate clarity, reinforced by his evidently thorough knowledge of the research literature, which commands respect." - John Maddox, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Maxime Schwartz's How the Cows Turned Mad traces the history of what he calls "The Disease" -- transmissible spongiform encephalopathies from scrapie (in sheep) and BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, i.e. mad cow disease) to CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob) and similar diseases affecting humans.
       From the earliest documented cases (of scrapie, in the mid-eighteenth century), to the discovery of CJD in humans and then the efforts to understand these diseases, Schwartz provides a good historic survey of both the diseases and our understanding of them.
       Of particular interest is the nature of this unusual disease, so very unlike almost every known virus or agent, and Schwartz does a good job of describing the scientific mysteries behind it and how they were solved, including the efforts to determine whether it was genetic, spontaneous, or infectious (or some combination of these), as well as the circumstances under which it could be transmitted (both among members of the same species and between species). The tragic case of transmission via human growth hormones, and then the better known Mad Cow disaster are also well described.
       Schwartz does not focus on the BSE-catastrophe: it is the disease itself, whether in sheep, mice, humans, or cows that is of primary interest. He does address some of the bureaucratic and political factors that went into the making of the BSE-crisis, but generally treats these as only a part of his broader subject.
       How the Cows Turned Mad is not a definitive account of the BSE scandal, but it is a fascinating scientific story, simply and clearly presented, and offering a good deal of information about a fascinating disease, passed on in often terrifying and unlikely ways (cannibalism ! corneal transplants ! hamburgers !). Certainly recommended as a good introduction to and overview of CJD, BSE, and related diseases -- and as an example of the ways in which scientific progress and discoveries are made.

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How the Cows Turned Mad: Reviews: BSE / Mad Cow Disease / Creutzfeld-Jakob disease: Maxime Schwartz: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French scientist Maxime Schwartz teaches at the Institut Pasteur.

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© 2003-2009 the complete review

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