The Demon in the Freezer

by Richard Preston

(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Year published: 2002
Category: nonfiction thriller; science thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY {adapted from the jacket flap}:

Author and science journalist Richard Preston returns to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), focus of his 1994 nonfiction blockbuster The Hot Zone, and the reader again meets the real-life military virologist Peter Jahrling. In the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks, biowarfare defense is a high priority at USAMRIID. But their biggest worry isn’t anthrax, it’s smallpox. In one of the great triumphs of modern science, the smallpox virus was eradicated from the wild in 1979. Officially, the virus now survives only in two high-security freezers: at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and in Siberia, at a Russian virology institute called Vector. But it is almost certain that illegal stocks of the smallpox virus exist elsewhere.


Demon in the Freezer, like The Hot Zone before it, is a compelling work of narrative nonfiction whose scary truths may keep you awake at night for a long time after the last page is turned. The theme of this book is bioterrorism, and in particular, smallpox. Preston tells the story of the “Amerithrax” anthrax attacks that rocked the country just weeks after 9/11 (at least, the story as it was known in 2002; the investigation continued until 2010 with, some say, the dubious fingering of USAMRIID scientist Dr. Bruce Ivins, who had committed suicide). You’ll learn in graphic detail about the last smallpox cases in Europe, in Germany in 1970; a speck of history about smallpox; and plenty about the eradication effort led by the formidable D. A. Henderson. Ebola virus makes a cameo appearance, and the book ends with genetically-engineered superpox and the contentious question of whether all known stocks of the smallpox virus should be destroyed.

Preston attempts to replicate the successful formula of The Hot Zone, but The Demon in the Freezer lacks the same compelling story line and thus much of the addictiveness of his previous nonfiction thriller. Having said that, however, I would remind the reader that I rate The Hot Zone as one of the greatest books ever. The Demon in the Freezer is inferior to that very high standard, but still a great read.

Read this book if: you don’t know why you should be grateful for that little scar on your upper arm. Those of you born before 1972 know what I’m talking about.

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