While researching his newest book, The Demon in the Freezer:
A True Story, Richard Preston traveled to Ft. Detrick, Md.,
headquarters of the United States Medical Research and Materiel
While there, he held the arm of a 3-year-old child. That child (no
one knows whether it was a boy or girl) had died of smallpox perhaps
50 years ago. From its fingertips to the shoulder, where it had
been detached for research purposes, the arm was covered in the
pustules that signify the deadly—but now eradicated—disease.
The condition was so severe, Preston said, that the tiny hand had
become one giant pustule.
“It was then when I saw what ordinary people experienced;
your grandparents may have seen smallpox with their own eyes,”
Preston told a full house at WHSCAB Auditorium Wednesday night during
an hour-long speech discussing his latest book.
While the subject matter—the dangers of the smallpox virus
being used as a weapon of mass destruction—is certainly serious
and Preston’s descriptions sometimes graphic, the overall
tone of the evening was hardly doom and gloom, and the speaker’s
delivery was engaging rather than heavy.
“We had every right, reason and need to cause this virus to
cease to exist on this planet,” Preston continued. About 20
years ago, there was a chance to destroy the world’s stockpiles
of smallpox, the last naturally occurring case of which took place
in 1977, but it was passed up. Now the United States, as well as
the rest of the world, is dealing with concerns that smallpox could
return—this time as a chemical weapon.
“Any nation that wants biological weapons will find PhD biologists
willing to create them,” Preston said. He compared modern
biological warfare to the proliferation of nuclear weapons among
several countries in the 20th century. “To keep ourselves
safe from the virus, we have to use it.”
It is that effort—to use the smallpox virus in a manner that
results in a new vaccine—that Preston details in The Demon
in the Freezer.
The book is a cautionary, nonfiction tale about the dangers posed
by smallpox, which is held officially in just two places: a lab
in Siberia and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC) in Atlanta. In the book, Preston interviews scientists who
are working on a new vaccine as well as discusses the possibility
that other entities, be they states or terrorist groups, possess
stockpiles of virus for use as a weapon of mass destruction.
Preston, who has a PhD in English literature from Princeton, has
written for The New Yorker since 1985. He is the author
of 1994’s The Hot Zone, a No. 1 New York Times best
seller, a recipient of the American Institute of Physics Award and
the only non-doctor to ever receive the CDC’s Champion of
Having written about Ebola in The Hot Zone, as well as
a bioterror-themed novel called The Cobra Event, Preston told the
crowd that he had hoped to write about something else.
But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 (he could see the smoke rising
above Manhattan from his New Jersey neighborhood) affected him deeply.
“I ended up feeling unable to move forward as a writer,”
he said. “I’d gotten a case of spiritual laryngitis.
I didn’t know what to say.” That event, as well as the
anthrax attacks of late 2001, resulted in his diving into a book
During his speech, Preston not only discussed the work and research
that led up to The Demon in the Freezer’s publication,
but he also spent significant time discussing his craft. Specifically
the unique nature of interviewing scientists, who he described as
“Scientists have uncomfortable reactions when described vividly,”
Preston said. “Details are what make a piece of writing come
alive. But scientists don’t understand when I ask what kind
of car they drive.”
Preston’s appearance was sponsored by the Center for Public
Health Preparedness and Research in the Rollins School of Public
Health as part of its Triangle Lecture Series. The goal of the Triangle
series is to bring together members of the public health, health
care and academic communities who are engaged in preparedness for
infectious diseases and other public health threats.