“Get well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them” is an enjoyable, macabre examination of several plagues, the heroes who handled the plagues well, and the fools who exacerbated the problem. Perhaps after reading this we can learn from history and be more robust in the face of the next epidemic. In that vein, here are 11 things I learned from this book.

1) The Antonine Plague helped topple Rome.

While there were indeed many factors in the fall of Rome, the Antonine Plague, so named because it happened during the reign of the stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, did it’s fair share of destruction. Stories tell of entire households emptied, stack of bodies piled in the streets with no one alive to bury them, and feral dogs in their hunger for flesh, spreading the gore to uninfected districts. It was all Marcus Aurelius could do to keep the streets clean and free of bodies, that the bodies themselves got a burial, and to keep up morale of Rome. For this, the book labelled the Emperor a hero. Unfortunately, when the plague spread from the city to the roman military, this lead to one of the earliest major defeats at the hands of Germanic tribes.

2) Some plagues are psychological in nature.

The book tells of a breakout of “the dancing sickness”, in a medieval village. In this instance, a woman started dancing suddenly and didn’t seem to stop even past the point of exhaustion. Even when the feet were ground against the pavement for so long that flesh of her feet had been worn away and the whites of her bones were showing, the trance didn’t seem to break, and the woman kept dancing. After a bit this possessed a group of villagers, all dancing together, and led their fellows to wonder what was happening to them. Initially it was proposed that music be played so they can dance themselves out. When that didn’t work, someone suggested an exorcism. Oddly enough the compassionate approach, combined with taking the group up to the chapel of the local saint (a trickster saint, if i recall correctly), and performing an exorcism, freed the villagers from their trance. For the efforts of the village as a whole to treat their affected, especially when hundreds of years later women would be burned at the stake for much less, this book awards them as heroes.

3) St. Dameon died to bring aid and comfort to those afflicted with leprosy.

There is an island within the Hawaiian archipelago where lepers would be sent. It was known as a terrible place not only because everyone there suffered from leprosy, but also because they were outcasts from society. Prostitution, drinking and gambling were rampant. Dameon, a healthy man at the time, offered to take the post for the catholic clergy on that island, as it had no priest. Once there, he was quick to help people out with chores that they could no longer do for themselves. He helped set up gardens and water wheels, and chased a more than a few people out of the saloon. Not only did the standard of living rise considerably through his help, people were happier. They didn’t feel abandoned. In exchange, Dameon caught leprosy and died of it on that island. For that, he was made a saint. All this is more astounding when you learn that Dameon started life as a troublemaker.

4) Leprosy is a disease that strictly affects the nerves, cutting off feeling in the skin.

The sores you see on lepers is not due to the disease directly. In daily life people damage themselves. Without pain receptors to tell you to stop doing the thing that hurts, people will unintentionally damage themselves irreparably. There was a story of St. Dameon, when he was making tea and preparing his sermon, accidentally spilled some water on his foot. It piqued his curiosity: the water was supposed to be hot, yet he felt no pain. He checked the temperature, and then deliberately poured boiling water straight from the kettle onto his bare foot. Again, this did not hurt. Every sermon before that he would open it by addressing the congregation “My fellow Christians…” That day he started his sermon, “My fellow lepers…”

5) Syphilis can often result in the loss of noses.

Because it was associated with an STD, people were often loathe to talk about it, and would pretend that the nose had been lost some other way. A “No-nose club” was formed in the 1800s, London, and was perhaps the first support group ever for a disease. When it’s founder died (presumably of Syphilis) the club produced a lovely poem in honor of its founder.

“Mourn for the loss of such a generous friend,
Whose lofty Nose no humble snout disdain’d;
But tho’ of Roman height could stoop so low
As to soothe those who ne’er a Nose could show.

Ah! Sure no noseless club could ever find
One single Nose so bountiful and kind
But now, alas! He’s sunk into the deep,
Where neither kings nor slaves a Nose shall keep.

But where proud Beauties, strutting Beaux and all,
Must soon into the noseless fashion fall,
Thither your friend in complaisance is gone,
To have his Nose, like yours, reduced to none.”

According to the author, the no-nose club is one of the heroes of Syphilis. I award it for it’s poetry.

6) Syphilitic madness is no joke.

Neitzsche ate shit and drank urine while in syphilitic madness. A friend of his wrote about the horrors Nietzsche experienced during the last years of the philosopher’s life in a letter, where he contemplates if it would have been better to just kill his friend and get it over with. He mentions that as he is writing this letter, Nietzsche is crouching in the corner of the room, out of his mind.

7) Worse, Encephalitis Lethargica is something out of a horror movie.

Encephalitis Lethargica, also called “sleeping sickness”, occurs fairly suddenly in people, and a multitude of cases appeared around the same time in the 20th century. Victims will rapidly and suddenly pass out, and then enter states somewhere between a state of dazed lethargy, where they can’t be made to do anything and don’t respond to the people around them, to full on comatose. Imagine your loved one suddenly goes into a coma and wakes up months or years later (some never do). Now imagine that upon waking you’re loved one is somewhat, ‘different’. Maybe he seems more irritable than he used to be, he gets aggressive with the kids or downright violent. One man shortly after waking attacked his wife and children for no apparent reason. One woman gouged out her own eyes pulled out her teeth. In both cases the individuals were fully conscious of the actions that they couldn’t stop themselves from doing, and were horrified by themselves in real time.

For those permanently comatose, a drug was discovered that was able to revive them temporarily. For those, it gave a few extra days or weeks of life. The author considers the doctor who used it to be a hero. On a side note, the story “RIP Van Winkle” may have been inspired by this disease.

8) Live Vaccines are a virus adapted to a new animal whereas dead vaccines are created by destroying the virus. Dead vaccines can be easier to produce but they are less effective.

Jonas Salk, when creating the Polio vaccine, worked on developing a dead version, while his immediate competitor worked on a live version of the vaccine. Salk produced his first, and thus got the credit, but the vaccine required multiple booster shots and didn’t last very long. Polio wasn’t really wiped out until the live one came to market, within a couple years of Salk’s vaccine.

9) The march of dimes funded Jonas Salk’s research.

This was part of the rationale as to why Salk didn’t patent the polio vaccine. The march of dimes mobilized massive numbers of Americans to donate. President Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt, paralyzed by polio, participated in charity birthday balls to raise money (and awareness) for the cause. This was one disease the U.S. handled well.

10) The U.S. media did a massive cover-up of the flu epidemic.

This one the U.S. handled horribly. During WWI, the government drafted young men from all over the country, kept them in the close quarters of military barracks and moved them around. As a result, a couple rural cases of a flu outbreak that seemed to kill young healthy adults in higher numbers than old people, turned into an epidemic spreading through the military and the towns they’re posted in. To prevent people from losing morale, the government suppressed information about the flu and threatened any newspapers that would even think about running such a story. Instead, the government decided to throw a military parade right through the city of Philadelphia.

What happens was like something from the Antonine plague. So many fell ill and died that bodies piled up in the street and dogs, their masters deceased, turned feral and began devouring from the rotting piles of corpses, spreading the filth with them to the unblighted neighborhoods. World wide it has been speculated that the flu pandemic killed more people than direct combat in WWI.

11) Even though John Snow managed to make a map of cholera outbreaks that corresponded exactly with the use of tainted wells, he had a bitch of a time convincing people that it was due to tainted water, and not bad air.

When people get attached to a bad idea, it can take years for them to let it go, even when you have all the correct evidence on hand.
This was an excellent book and I highly recommend reading it, especially when you’re in the mood for some scary stories that also happen to be real.