Book review: A book that 'ticks' all the boxes

“Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons;" by Kris Newby; 2019; Harper Wave; 319 pages.


You get so much from being outdoors in nature. Ahhhhh, the fresh air, the sunshine, the birds singing! You might see wildlife or find berries or nuts to snack on. Touch the grass. Look up at the trees.

Think about how relaxed you’ll feel. As in the new book, “Bitten,” by Kris Newby, imagine what you might bring home. On a wonderful, idyllic Martha’s Vineyard family vacation in 2003, Kris Newby and her husband were both bitten by ticks. They didn’t know it then.

They didn’t have an inkling until two weeks later when, back home in Silicon Valley, they came down with “an intense, flulike illness” that just wouldn’t go away. Newby’s husband eventually got better but for Newby, tests offered no answers until she found a doctor who diagnosed Lyme disease, and set her on a “five-year treatment regimen.”

One year in, she “was healthy enough to begin asking questions,” which spurred her to co-produce a documentary about Lyme disease. Government experts were unwilling to appear on-camera, so she and her co-producer began to look for a “retired NIH Lyme expert who would talk.”

That led her to Montana, Willy Burgdorfer, and an explosive story. Because of a literal flip of a coin, Burgdorfer arrived from Switzerland to Montana in late 1951, having been hired by the Rocky Mountain Laboratory to study tick-borne diseases. He settled in, married a local woman, and dived into what apparently fascinated him.


But as the Cold War heated up, Burgdorfer began to see that his role in research had changed. He was no longer looking for a cure for tick-borne illnesses; he was instead force-feeding ticks with diseases, and he’d become the “go-to person for special tick requests for bioweapons projects.” But what did he know?

In subsequent interviews, Burgdorfer admitted to Newby that he hadn’t told her “’everything’” so Newby requested information through the Freedom of Information Act to see what Burgdorfer kept mum. What she found, she believes, is “straight out of some B-movie script.”

Absolutely, you could be forgiven if, in the first 75 pages of “Bitten,” your thoughts start drifting along the "are-you-KIDDING-me?" side. What’s claimed here is, indeed, right out of a black-and-white 1950s flick.

But then, as author and science writer Kris Newby continues to reveal information, name sources, and explain why her life may have been in danger during her research, well, that chill you feel isn’t the air conditioning. Her research is documented. Her sources are all educated, well-known individuals.

What she claims is plausible – isn’t it? Any conspiracy theorist or reader of thrillers may believe so, but there are still an awful lot of questions left to be answered. Even Newby admits that she edged uncomfortably too close to her subject. In her closing, which is wistful, readers are left longing for answers that may never come.

You’ll also be scratching, but don’t let a little squeamishness stop you if you’re a fan of thrillers or medical stories. For you, “Bitten” may just tick all the boxes.

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