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“Demon in the Freezer” by Richard Preston

“Demon in the Freezer” by popular virus expert Richard Preston is the third book in his ‘trilogy of death.’ After zooming in on the dangers of Ebola virus in his best-selling book “The Hot Zone,” and bioengineered monkey pox in “The Cobra Event,” Preston shifts the focus to the lurking threat posed by the deadly smallpox virus in the event that it becomes the new weapon of choice among terrorists dabbling in chemical warfare.

            The book is premised on an alarming but very real possibility – the vulnerability of America and the rest of the world to biological weapons at the hands of terrorists.

            It all begins on the events of September 27, 2001, a Thursday, nearly three weeks after the terror attacks on the Twin Towers of the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Photo retoucher Robert Stevens begins to feel unwell and suffers from flu-like symptoms after he takes his family hiking in North Carolina.

He starts to vomit profusely and soon develops a high fever, convulsions, and slips into a coma before succumbing to a fatal breathing arrest.

Medical experts diagnose the cause of death as inhalation anthrax, alerting Army officials into action. More poisoned letters are discovered and the victims are rushed into bivouac units, forcing authorities to confront the worst – could the anthrax, non-communicable and treatable with early diagnosis, be laced with something far more deadly – the fatal smallpox virus?

            After narrating the anthrax attacks on Sen. Tom Deschle’s office in October 2001, Preston makes a temporal jump (one of several in fact) to cover a smallpox outbreak in Germany back in 1970, courtesy of the man Peter Los, who in his youth has gone traipsing halfway around the world in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan in pursuit of the hippie ideals of the ‘60s.

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Preston then proceeds to describe the prehistoric origins of smallpox as far as the early river valley civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

            Then he propels back to the ‘70s as he retells the smallpox eradication campaign led by medical doctor Donald Ainslie (DA) Henderson, then director of the World Health Organization’s Smallpox Eradication Unit from its inception (1966) to 1977, just before the last known reported case occurred.

            Henderson is passionate about getting rid of the virus:

“What we need to do is create a general moral climate where smallpox is considered too morally reprehensible to be used as a weapon. That would make the possession of smallpox in a laboratory, anywhere, effectively a crime against humanity. The likelihood that it would be used as a weapon is diminished by a global commitment to destroy it. How much it is diminished I don’t know. But it adds a level of safety (Preston, 2002, p. 54).

            A Soviet epidemiologist also deserves credit for jump-starting the modern effort to eradicate smallpox – Viktor Zhdanov – who called for its global eradication at the 1958 World Health Assembly annual meeting. This was subsequently endorsed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 in a political move to improve American-Soviet relations, and D.A. Henderson found himself heading the World Health Organization’s new Smallpox Eradication Unit. And the rest of the eradication campaign became one of the greatest feats in public health history.

            Preston now turns to an examination of the Soviet biological weapons program in 1989, after Soviet biologist Vladimir Pasechnik defected to Britain and confirmed that the USSR had biological missiles targeted at the United States. This infuriated then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President George Bush, who confronted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In response, Gorbachev allowed a small, secret team of weapons inspectors to tour the Soviet’s bio-warfare facilities for their Biopreparat program. These American and British inspectors were alarmed by what they discovered: Russian scientists were testing and experimenting with smallpox at their bioweapons facility at the Vector virology complex in Siberia, in violation of the WHO rules. This was denied by Soviet authorities.

            For top UDAMRIID scientist Peter Jahrling, the demon in the freezer has been set loose, with illegal stocks of the smallpox virus in possession of rogue states like Iraq and North Korea almost a certainty. The thought of biologists in secret labs creating new strains of the virus into a ‘superpox’ variant resistant to all vaccines is enough to sent chills down virologists’ spines. Jahrling is leading a team of scientists in controversial experiments with live smallpox to develop vaccines and help counter what the bioterrorists might be cooking up.

            The author views the subject of bioterrorism as a very real, urgent and alarming threat to national security, and the fate of humanity on the whole, given today’s mobile world where a smallpox outbreak could spread as fast as wildfire across countries all over the globe.

            Following the events after 9/11 and the anthrax terror, Preston highlights the new world order: the urgency to safeguard civilization from these new menaces. Smallpox is recognized as the new supreme bioterror menace, given the disease’s potential to cause human agony, its capability for fast and easy transmission, and ultimately its lethal character.

Anthrax pales in comparison as direct contact is unnecessary for smallpox to spread – all it takes is for the virus to travel through a ventilation system. Immunity from the disease through vaccines introduced decades ago effectively vanishes, and if released in today’s very mobile world, it would easily overwhelm mankind in dreadful waves. Preston succinctly captures the menace of smallpox, without resorting to hyperbole:

“Smallpox is explosively contagious, and it travels through the air. Virus particles in the mouth become airborne when the host talks. If you inhale a single particle of smallpox, you can come down with the disease… Then the illness hits with a spike of fever, a backache, and vomiting, and a bit later tiny red spots appear all over the body. The spots turn into blisters, called pustules, and the pustules enlarge, filling with pressurized opalescent pus. The eruption of pustules is sometimes called the splitting of the dermis. The skin doesn’t break, but splits horizontally, tearing away from its underlayers. The pustules become hard, bloated sacs the size of peas, encasing the body with pus, and the skin resembles a cobbled stone street.

…The pain of the splitting is extraordinary. People lose the ability to speak, and their eyes can squeeze shut with pustules, but they remain alert. Death comes with a breathing arrest or a heart attack or shock or an immune-system storm, though exactly how smallpox kills a person is not known (Preston, 2002, p. 44).”   

            The sociological consequences on account of the issue of bioterrorism are manifold and far-reaching. There is of course the issue of power relations among nations, particularly in the case of the arms race between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War which brought to the fore the threat of nuclear annihilation and bio-chemical warfare. Though the Soviet bloc has crumbled, other rogue states, e.g. North Korea, Cuba and Iran, are more than ready to threaten and challenge the United States for military supremacy, and might even be developing new weapons of mass destruction no longer limited to nuclear warheads but utilizing as well deadly pathogens and viral strains.

            Preston spends much time in the book discussing current efforts of the American scientific community to research smallpox in the hope of better combating bioterrorism. It is important to note, as Preston does, that the people leading the fight to destroy smallpox, though well-trained, was still mostly a ragtag group of scientists and medical doctors with the firm conviction that smallpox could indeed, and should be annihilated from the face of the planet.

            Perhaps his discussion of the current research on smallpox would prove more relevant as he provides a detailed description and analysis of the conflicts and controversies surrounding the project – from securing approval and the go-ahead signal from top government officials to the personal conflicts and issues the personalities involved in the research have had to face. The primary concern centers on the perceived lax security at the two worldwide biomedical installations, one in Atlanta and the other at Siberia, and their conviction on the very real threat of bioterrorism which could strike anytime and claim so many lives, given the state of unpreparedness to counter such an attack.

            Preston successfully connects the past (the impetus for eradication of the disease) to the future (current concerns on how to counter the virus). As situated within the new-world context of post 9/11, there is a pressing need for vaccine stockpiling, long advocated by top government virologist Peter Jahrling who had initially feared the lacing of the mailed anthrax spores with smallpox. He comes into conflict with D. A. Henderson, the current head of the Office of Public Health Preparedness, as he argues for the development of an antiviral agent for those who cannot receive the smallpox vaccine.

Henderson thinks that Jahrling’s experimentation with smallpox in laboratory monkeys is a largely futile step in the wrong direction. The dean of John Hopkins School of Public Health Al Sommer has joined the fray, believing that Jahrling’s work provides an impetus for other countries to conduct their on experiments on smallpox, thereby “We could start an arms race over smallpox… (Sommers as quoted by Preston, 2002).”

            More disturbing is the revelation of the creation of a genetically engineered mousepox virus to which mousepox-resistant rodents are highly susceptible, intensifying the fear that unscrupulous scientists might have already created a ‘smallpox supervirus’ immune to current vaccines. Preston (2002) leaves us with this dire warning:

“The main thing that stands between the human species and the creation of a supervirus is a sense of responsibility among individual biologists…The international community of physicists came of age in a burst of light over the sand of Trinity in New Mexico. The biologists have not yet experienced their Trinity.”

            The book’s main strength is that is a well-researched piece, and Richard Preston has proven himself a skillful writer with his vivid narration and matter-of-fact style allowing him to dispense with hyperbole.  The book succeeds in frightening its readers as it covers many interesting episodes. Although some may find the message of “Demon in the Freezer” grim and uncomfortable it nonetheless awakens readers to the true significance of chillingly real concepts, i.e. “weapons of mass destruction” and “bioterrorism.”

            On the weak side, the temporal jumps in the narration give one the feeling of a disjointed read, as the two stories on anthrax and smallpox do not quite flow as smoothly and coherently as one might wish – the author fails to weave the story in such a way that there is an effectively riveting and seamless momentum – though each part is fascinating. At some point, there is also too much details to grasp and absorb, and to that extent the reader have to grapple with information overload, halting the usually rapid fire story-telling.

            The main bias of the author is that he is of course writing from the American perspective, as the USA proves to be the eminent target of terror attacks. Thus, “Demon in the Freezer” appears to be an attempt to inform and warn Americans of the dangers they are currently facing from the threat of bioterrorism, and to some extent to influence authorities and make them realize the horrors – a global viral epidemic which could wipe out the world’s population – which might arise from inaction on the part of government and the scientific community:

            “A vaccine-resistant smallpox would be everyone’s worst nightmare come true… We could be left trying to fight a genetically engineered virus with a vaccine that had been invented in 1796 (Preston, 2002).”

            General Russell had this to add: “If smallpox really got going, people should be most concerned about a lack of effective leadership on the part of their government (quoted by Preston, 2002, p. 60).

            On a happy note, “Demon in the Freezer” provided the timely opportunity for me to get acquainted with the issue of bioterrorism and its related concepts – biological warfare, weapons of mass destruction, etc., which are obviously pressing concerns for humanity burdened with the threat of nuclear destruction and annihilation in a not-so-distant future. However, this remains to be the only experience I have so far with the issue of bioterrorism and specifically smallpox and anthrax, for that matter.

            In terms of the need for further research, I think it should focus more on determining and mapping out the states which really have illegal strains of smallpox virus in their possession, in order to effectively prepare for any possible worse-case scenarios in the advent of a smallpox terror attack.

Aside from smallpox, it might prove helpful in the long-run if scientists also map out other possible biological agents which might pose future threats to human security, and to explore the possibility of developing vaccines and other counter-measures. All of these proposed researches need to be conducted in the most stringent, up-to-standard manner possible, with adequate empirical grounding and in the most morally and ethically acceptable ways.

            I think in many ways (though it might be indirect), the reviewed work does relate to Sociology, with the latter in turn covering a wide array of fields involving human interaction and dynamics in the context of groups and societies. Political institutions and the ensuing dynamics and power relations governing these are discussed by Preston in the book, together with the issue of ethics in research, i.e. the controversy surrounding experiments with smallpox and other viral agents.

            Perhaps it would prove useful if material from the book would be incorporated into class lectures, particularly the ethical aspects of research and experimentation with life –threatening organisms, the actual existence and lingering threat of biological warfare and terrorism, and how it is being met by existing social institutions.

            Overall, I did found “Demon in the Freezer” an interesting read, though at times I had to really struggle with understanding all the concepts and trains of thought Preston had introduced in his narratives. It was informative at the same time, though at some point you would really realize how frighteningly real is the scenario the author is trying to relay to his audience.


  1. Preston, Richard (2002). “Demon in the Freezer.” New York: Random House.

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“Demon in the Freezer” by Richard Preston. (2017, Apr 25). Retrieved from

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