Science Quest: Killing Germs, Saving Lives: The Quest for the First Vaccines by Glen Phelan

Science Quest: Killing Germs, Saving Lives: The Quest for the First Vaccines by Glen Phelan

Phelan, Glen. Science Quest: Killing Germs, Saving Lives: The Quest for the First Vaccines. National Geographic Children’s Books, 2006. ISBN 978-0792255376 64 pp. $


The scope of this book is the discovery and implementation of vaccines, from Jenner’s unexpected smallpox vaccine in 1796 to current day Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine in 1954, covering the increase of antiseptic practices in hospitals along the way. A passing mention is made of continued strides in vaccinations today – nothing more than a laundry list of what is being worked on.

The tone is uneven – the introductions range from early reader short repetitive sentences to brief paragraphs with SAT words. Phelan is careful at explaining, but not always adept at it, and is sometimes redundant. The biographical sidebars allow the author to demonstrate his skill at being concise and entertaining in limited space, but the excellent writing these spaces doesn’t spill over to the main narrative. The information is very good, but the design and delivery could be improved.

Quotes appear right next to captioned illustrations, creating an illusion that the boxed text is related to the graphic, when it isn’t. A running timeline helps set events in context, but there is often discrepancy between the dates highlighted and the narration on the same page. For example, Florence Nightingale is first mentioned on page 10. A photo appears on page next to the timeline and her 1820 birthdate. On Page 31, she earns a biography sidebar and the accompanying two pages focus on her contribution to modern nursing, circa 1854. The timeline at the top of the page, however, covers the 1870’s. Few women and no minorities are portrayed, and a picture of two white men in a lab perpetuates the stereotype that science is not for girls. Finally, the modern day information remains US and Eurocentric and makes no mention of issues of disease and prevention worldwide.

Beautiful photographs of bacteria and viruses are a redeeming quality. Photographs of the key players as well as surgical instruments and historic moments help to document the story. Other photos detract from the text, such as illustrations of other milestones (the telephone, the automobile).

The glossary is presented in sentence fragments. The bibliography is focused on websites for biographical and vaccination resources. Only photo sources are cited. The CIP page reads “Large parts of this book were previously published as Finding the First Vaccines (National Geographic 2003);” perhaps that explains the pieced-together feel of Killing Germs, Saving Life. As the timeline doesn’t go beyond 1995, it is unclear why National Geographic felt the need to repackage this book, especially with so poor a design.

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