Jennifer Wright – Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them
Wright has an irreverent, slightly offbeat sense of humor that is perfect for her topic, reminding me a bit of a more restrained Mary Roach. Wright takes a mostly chronological tour of disease, starting with the Antonine plague in ancient Rome, up through the bubonic plague, and on to the present day. In the 19th century, tuberculosis was oddly fashionable, in much the same way that the sunken, desiccated features associated with heroin chic are stylish today among fashion models. It was a glamorous disease, except that it very much wasn’t. Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine get a chapter, and Wright discusses the depth of the anti-Semitism he faced.
The chapter on encephalitis lethargica was poignant. The disease, which briefly flared up in the 1910s and 1920s, would essentially turn its victims into bed-bound, non-responsive zombies for years, and in some cases decades. The neurologist Oliver Sacks was able to revive some of his patients, who had no memories from after falling ill. One woman who fell ill during the 1920s flapper craze at age 21 woke up in 1960s an old woman, still exhibiting 1920s-era speech patterns and with no life experiences beyond early adulthood. Worse, Sacks’ treatments only worked for a few years. Patients would eventually revert to their former state, their revival a temporary one. Was it worth it? Different patients may have had different answers to that question.
Wright’s treatment of syphilis and other STDs, on the other hand, is often hilarious. The most recent major plague, HIV/AIDS, is less humorous, but is on track to have a happier ending, though not without millions of lives being destroyed first, and with social conservatives causing their usual intended harm.