At this point, it’s safe to say, most people in the United States have not been on the receiving end of midnight vaccination raids, with doctors breaking into their homes and jabbing their families with needles. It’s been a long time since we saw entire cities flattened by disease. So long, in fact, that lessons from those days seem to have been lost on a few generations.

We’re in the midst of a confused national debate over vaccines, with some fearing immunization side effects more than the diseases they fight, and others pushing for more vaccines, at younger ages, and being baffled when parents object. Newspapers report that vaccines may or may not cause autism, autoimmune diseases, and allergies; at the same time, they warn of viral pandemics that can (and do) kill millions, and call for new vaccines to save us (from, say, AIDS, or avian flu). But when those new vaccines arrive and officials say we must give them to our children, we balk. This is nothing new: the vaccine debate has been raging for hundreds of years, because immunizations have a long and complicated history of both saving our lives and hurting us. We needed a book that laid out the history and made sense of it.

There have been at least twenty books on smallpox and polio alone. But until Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver, by the science journalist Arthur Allen, no book had so carefully and clearly catalogued the history of immunization. And, as Allen writes, “the best way to gain an understanding of why our children [are] vaccinated against particular diseases—and why some people [are] challenging these choices—[is] to delve into the history.”

We’ve seen viruses threaten to wipe out millions (and succeed). Parents have refused immunization, then found themselves with sick and dying children, while those doing the immunizing had to pay large sums for damages caused by vaccines that were not properly made or tested. And here’s something ironic: when vaccines do their job best, people doubt them most. They start thinking, Who gets whooping cough anymore? Why should I expose my children to even the slightest risk of vaccine side effects to protect them from a disease no one gets? Anyone who’s ever asked that question should read this book. So should anyone who thinks vaccine doubters are crazy. Because Allen shows that those fears come from real stories of vaccines causing everything from brain damage to tetanus to polio. But more than that, he shows why we have vaccines in the first place, and why it’s a bad idea to shun them.

Allen’s book starts in the 1700s, with smallpox and the first immunizations, and ends with the nearly 10,000 lawsuits filed in 2006 claiming vaccine damages. Along the way, he raises important ethical issues (like the role vaccines played in eugenics), and highlights the many ways children bore the burden of that history: their bodies were used to develop and test vaccines (not always ethically); they suffered the injection side effects, and got the diseases when parents refused to immunize them. Allen traces the legal history of vaccine production, from the first lawsuit for damaging side effects to a litigation free-for-all, with companies paying large sums for problems their shots didn’t cause. (Covering their losses by raising vaccination costs was easier than fighting in court.)

Much of the material devoted to smallpox and polio has been explored elsewhere. Allen’s truly original contributions come with more recent issues that haven’t been widely covered. Whooping cough, for example, lingers in the United States in part because many parents refuse to vaccinate against it. The story that feels largely missing is the new vaccine for strains of the HPV virus, which can cause cervical cancer. HPV is rapidly headed toward as much controversy as any vaccine before it. More, perhaps, since this one—like the vaccine for hepatitis B, which faced similar problems—is a sexually transmitted disease. But Allen makes up for that omission with his detailed coverage of the autism controversy.

Rebecca Skloot is a freelance writer. Her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is forthcoming from Crown.