The Demon in the Freezer Summary and Study Guide

Richard Preston

The Demon in the Freezer

  • 33-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 8 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis.
  • Written by a English instructor with an MFA from Johns Hopkins University
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The Demon in the Freezer Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 33-page guide for “The Demon in the Freezer” by Richard Preston includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 8 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Ever-Present Danger and Personal versus Professional Life.

Plot Summary

Journalist Richard Preston’s 2002 non-fiction book The Demon in the Freezer takes a look at biological weapons in the post-9/11 era, detailing the American government’s defense (and failures to defend) against these weapons.

Section 1, entitled “Something in the Air” is a day-by-day description of October 2-15, 2001, when letters filled with anthrax were sent to various American media outlets and offices of US Senators. Robert Stevens, a photo retoucher for the Sun newspaper, sickens and dies after inhaling anthrax sent through the mail. The CDC and Center for Disease Control examine his death and discover that others have become sick. They also discover a letter that came in with the anthrax, which declares “DEATH TO AMERICA” and “ALLAH IS GREAT.” This is no simple health crisis, but a terrorist attack.

In Section 2, Preston describes an outbreak of smallpox in a German hospital caused by a patient who contracts it after visiting the Middle East. It is contained within the hospital quarantine, but still results in fatalities. Chapter 3 further explores the scourge of smallpox, as Preston explains just how quickly smallpox can spread, jumping from species to species. In the 1970s, a doctor and counterculture icon named Lawrence Brilliant is ordered by his beloved Indian guru, Neem Karoli Baba, to eradicate smallpox once and for all. He teams with the World Health Organization and successfully reaches his goals in 1980.

Section 4, “The Dark Side of the Moon,” deals with the defection of Vladimir Pasechnik, a USSR bioweaponeer who came to the U.K. with stories of Soviet bioweapons experiments, including antibiotic-resistant strains of smallpox and the plague. Section 5 opens with the work of Dr. Lisa E. Hensley, a microbiologist who also studies epidemics and diseases. She works for the US Army at a facility known as USAMRIID. While working on Ebola research in 2000, Hensley accidentally cuts her finger, exposing her to the deadly disease. This chapter details the procedures that followed and prevented Dr. Hensley for contracting the disease. It continues by describing the engineering of the Jackson-Ramshaw mousepox virus, created by scientists and resistant to virtually all forms of vaccination and treatment. Army scientists work for years, attempting to infect animals with smallpox, which worries some other scientists, who worry that a terrorist will exploit this knowledge.

Section 6 continues with the Army scientists, as they successfully infect monkeys with various strains of smallpox in 2001, something that had never been done before. As they are collecting data, the 9/11 attacks occur, forcing the scientists to evacuate the lab and further raising fears that terrorists will turn to bioweapons for future attacks.

Section 7, “The Anthrax Skulls,” returns to the events of October 2001, this time providing a day-by-day report of October 16-25, as Department of Health and Human Services investigators, along with the FBI, CIA, and White House examine the anthrax attacks. The scientists investigating the attacks discover that the particular anthrax contains a new, dangerous additive. The anthrax contains small particles of glass. These shards work to break down the anthrax spores, allowing them to float through the air and infect more people than was previously possible. If this newly engineered anthrax was to be released at high levels in a major city, the result could be catastrophic. The investigators wonder where the anthrax was engineered, how it was obtained by the letter sender, and whether Iraq is connected to the attacks.

In the final section, entitled “Superpox,” Preston focuses on St. Louis University School of Medicine scientist Mark Buller, as Buller attempts to replicate the Jackson-Ramshaw virus. If Buller can replicate this super-virus, then there is potential for a terrorist to do the same and unleash the nearly unstoppable virus in major metropolitan areas. He successfully replicates the virus and discovers that it has a 100% percent fatality rate among the lab mice, a discover with obviously devastating implications for a world vulnerable to bioterrorist attacks. Buller attempts to discover a vaccination for this superbug and does discover one—but it is only effective when injected right before exposure to Jackson-Ramshaw. A person vaccinated even a month before exposure would not be protected. The book ends with the description of a child’s severed arm, covered in smallpox pustules and preserved and housed at USAMRIID. The Army scientists examine the arm, horrified and amazed by the ravages of the disease. This, Preston says, is the true danger of bioterrorism. Even if you eliminate a disease like smallpox from nature, humans will find a way to use the disease for their own ends.

Through his use of several storylines and threads ranging from the 1970s to 2002, Preston depicts a world that is deeply vulnerable to bioterrorist attacks and how scientists simultaneously work to combat the effects of…

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