No one would accuse Simon Schama of writing a blasé book, even when he ventures beyond his bailiwick.

In his eloquent, discursive "Foreign Bodies," the art historian and Europhile turns his colossal erudition to pandemics and the women and men who transformed our understanding of them. It's just what the doctor ordered as a robust SARS CoV-2 variant surges across the globe. Schama wisely avoids reportage, which is still evolving, and leans, instead, into the past, crafting a play in three acts: smallpox, cholera and bubonic plague.

"Foreign Bodies" casts familiar and lesser-known figures in a fresh light. In the 18th century, Voltaire investigated inoculation, a common practice amid female peasants in the Levant and eastern Mediterranean region but derided by snobby Europeans. The procedure would produce mild symptoms as the body's immune system attacked a virus, but pustules dropped off harmlessly, leaving no scars.

An English aristocrat, Mary Wortley Montagu, also advocated for inoculation, penning a letter under the pseudonym "Merchant of Turkey." She wielded her status to foment change: "To be personally inoculated or, more dramatically, to have one's small children treated, became a sign that one belonged to the enlightened classes; partisans of scientific knowledge ... the badge of modernity."

Later in the 19th century, Adrien Proust, a French physician and father of Marcel, emerged as a titan of public health, journeying across Asia and charting the vectors of disease: "It was through the movement of humans, Proust wrote unambiguously, that pandemics spread their fatal net. Steam and rail were multiplying and accelerating those contacts, whether in the form of mass Islamic pilgrimages or the to-and-fro traffic of the colonial empires, expanding every year. This all now seems self-evident, but in the 1870s and 1880s it was anything but." From Proust to Persian shahs to Jewish revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia, Schama embeds stories within stories: matryoshka dolls as narrative technique.

He anchors the second half of "Foreign Bodies" in a remarkable polymath, bachelor Waldemar Haffkine, whose early brushes with pogroms in Ukraine emboldened him to do good in the world. Haffkine was an indefatigable researcher and clinician, pioneering mass production of vaccine.

These plague chapters dazzle as they detour to Japan, Africa and India, where the waning Raj stymied Haffkine's efforts to alleviate suffering. Schama details the peripatetic career of this prodigious man, who married science with Jewish ritual and an activist Zionism (now the organizing principle of government in Palestine). While Schama admirably rescues Haffkine from the margins, my sole quibble is that his flowery portrait flirts with hagiography. ("Goodness, but he is beautiful," Schama gushes over his photograph.)

"Haffkine's freedom of action was always circumscribed by politics," Schama notes. These social musings bring us inevitably to the recent demonization of Anthony Fauci. Schama's critique is spot on as he pivots from arresting (if tragic) tales of the past to our ominous present and the dangers of an uninformed citizenry. "Foreign Bodies" is sterling cultural history, but it also reminds us that political concerns mold our choices as future pandemics brew.

Hamilton Cain, who reviews fiction and nonfiction for a range of venues, will next tackle Justin Torres' "Blackouts." He lives in Brooklyn.

Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations

By: Simon Schama.

Publisher: Ecco, 480 pages, $32.99.