To Catch a Virus

Authors: John Booss, Marilyn J. August
Content Type: Monograph
Format: Electronic
Publication Year: 2013

Category: General Interest; Clinical Microbiology

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Expert storytellers weave together the science, technological advances, medical urgencies, and human stories that chronicle the development of the field of diagnostic virology.

  • Follows historical discoveries that defined viruses and their roles in infectious diseases over a century of developments, epidemics, and molecular advances, and continuing into the 21st century with AIDS, HIV, and a future that in no way resembles the past.
  • Features the great names and personalities of diagnostic virology, their contributions, their associations, and their challenges to prove findings that some considered fantasy.
  • Describes how scientists applied revolutionary technologies, studying viruses, first in animal models and tissue culture and progressing to molecular and genetic techniques.
  • Appeals to the pioneer and adventure-seeker who is interested in how a scientific field evolves.

“This is a wonderful read for anyone interested in understanding the roots and evolution of virology and immunology. Booss and August bring the history of virology to life in a gripping narrative that is entertaining as well as informative.”

─ W. Ian Lipkin, MD, John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and Director, Center for Infection and Immunity, Mailman School of Public Health; Professor of Pathology and Neurology, College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University.

To Catch a Virus provides a lively and entertaining historical tour de force of diagnostics virology, from mummies to molecules.  It describes clearly how we have advanced from the discovery of filterable viruses through animal models, cell culture techniques, serological approaches, and microscopy to our current ability to identify molecular footprints of infection.  I highly recommend it.” 

─ Martin S. Hirsch, MD, Professor of Medicine, Harvard University; Editor, The Journal of Infectious Disease

Paperback, 392 pages, illustrations, index.

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10 January 2014

To Catch a Virus by Booss (Yale Univ.) and August (formerly, Aviron/MedImmune) is a thorough history of the development of diagnostic virology. Each chapter focuses on a particular group of viruses or a particular research technique as the basis for a discussion of an aspect of virology. The readable text successfully describes how advances in laboratory techniques aided in scientific understanding of particular viruses and how study of a particular virus was key in the development of an important laboratory technique. Examples include a description of how advances in microscopy and an understanding of the rabies virus went hand in hand, and how the ability to propagate polio virus in cultured cells and advancement in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of polio are linked. A strong point of the book is its rich descriptions of the people involved in the advancement of virology. Photographs of viruses and virologists add to an engaging story. The well-referenced narrative will likely be accessible to the nonvirologist.  

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All academic and general readers.

CHOICE Magazine

Reviewer: M. S. Kainz, Ripon College

Review Date: October 2013

Microbe Magazine

21 September 2013

I confess to being what might be called an “accidental virologist,” one of those guys who works on only one or two viruses in a lifetime motivated initially the usefulness of viruses as tools for understanding basic problems in cell and molecular biology. Thus I came to virology through the back door, and after 40 years I’m still learning about the real heroes of virology, those who hunted down these pathogens as novel, perplexing submicroscopic agents of calamity in nature. I have been using and teaching virology techniques for years with little or no appreciation for their origins. Plaque assays, animal models, growth in embryonated eggs, cytopathic effect, inclusion bodies, electron microscopy, ELISA, and hemagglutination, to name a few. Along the way I’ve developed a casual but burgeoning interest in the history of virology. To Catch a Virus dropped into my lap by surprise and fýlled in a lot of blanks. This is virology history with a twist: it is a history of diagnostic virology.

The authors, John Booss and Marylin J. August, are undisputed experts in the field and have tackled their topic with rigor and passion. Both trained with the renowned Yale diagnostic virologist Gueh-Djen Hsiung, to whom the book is dedicated, and it is clear that they sought, and succeeded, to honor her memory with a comprehensive and engaging summary of the field.

To Catch a Virus is presented in chapters which are organized along both topical and historical lines. Most chapters explore a technique, for example animal models, serology, electron microscopy, cell culture, immunofluorescence, or modern nucleic acid-based techniques. Each technique represents a major advance in diagnostic virology so that in aggregate the book covers the entire history of virology by examining major technical advances in a logical historical progression. In addition, each individual chapter comprises a mini-history of a given technique, so that the chapters are knit together with overlapping histories. Included also is a chapter on the evolution of diagnostic virology as a specific discipline and the founding of academic, hospital, and government diagnostic virology laboratories, almost as if the formal administration of the discipline was in itself a technical advance.

Individual chapters comprise an engaging mix of biography and technical description, so that the technical advances are understood in the context of the personalities and passions of the scientists who pioneered them. The book is chock full of delightful pictures and quotes that enliven the presentation. My personal favorite quote is from a prescient discussion in an 1892 paper by George Sternberg: “I believe that there is something in the blood of the immune calf that neutralizes the vaccine virus.”

The book is directed toward a broad audience, however in many places the authors seem to assume at least a modest if not fairly sophisticated background in molecular genetics, cell biology, virology, and immunology. The book would be a struggle at best, or perhaps impossible, for a genuine layperson, but I think there is something for anyone else from a novice to an experienced biological scientist. For the novice it provides an accurate and comprehensive historical foundation for virology. For the seasoned microbiologist it may be a breezy walk down memory lane, with fond recognition of an entertaining cascade of familiar characters.

The writing style is straightforward, clear, and quite readable. It may be a bit dry in a few places that read like a textbook; however, these sections are tolerable for their contribution to the clarity of the work as a whole. More importantly, the material is presented with such clarity that the science and the scientists involved communicate the intrinsic excitement of inquiry and discovery; the science itself propels the work.

While not its main purpose necessarily, I think the book also serves as a compact reference work. Each chapter is scrupulously documented with literature citations, the work is thoroughly indexed, and the authors even include an appendix in outline form that provides a timeline for the advances described in each chapter.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed To Catch a Virus and would recommend it to anyone. What we know about viruses and what we can know about viruses is both limited and defined by the techniques used to study them, and therefore this work captures the essence of virology in a historical context. I think it is a fulfilling read for anyone with an interest in virology.

Microbe Magazine

Reviewer: Richard Condit, University of Florida, Gainesville

Review Date: September 2013

Doody’s Review Services

02 August 2013


This highly readable and well-formatted work traces the development of diagnostic virology from the early days of germ theory to the present day understanding of how viral diseases are transmitted and detected.


A retired neurologist (John Booss, MD) and a former virologist, biotechnologist, and current science writer (Marilyn August, PhD) achieve their goal of telling the stories of how viruses were discovered and diagnosed.


This book would appeal to diagnostic virologists, microbiologists, medical historians, and any health professionals with an interest in the history of medicine.


The color and black-and-white illustrations and photographs are outstanding. The illustrations depict notables (Antony van Leeuwenhoek, Edward Jenner, Rudolf Virchow, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and others), perceptions of specific viral diseases from different time periods, and images related to various diagnostic techniques and laboratory procedures (electron microscopy, Western blotting, various assays, etc.). The appendix includes timelines by chapter.


Unlike other recently published works on the history of virology that tend to focus on one viral disease (AIDS, smallpox, or influenza, for example), this one is a broad history of the field.

Doody's Review Services

Reviewer: Elizabeth Connor, MLS, DM/AHIP (The Citadel)

Review Date: July 2013

©Doody’s Review Service

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