Your first reaction to reading a book about the history of infectious diseases might be “why would I want to read that right now?” But this book was fascinating. It was published in 2017, well before COVID, yet it has so much to say about people react to the threat of infectious disease, and how we should react. And what makes this book stand out is that it’s written in an engaging, even humorous way that makes it a lighter read than you might expect.
Wright describes the different diseases in chronological order, beginning with the Antonine Plague near the end of the Roman Empire, and ending with polio. In between are the ones you’d expect — the bubonic plague, smallpox, typhoid, and influenza — and some you may not expect unless you really pay attention to such things, such as syphilis, leprosy, and encephalitis.
This is actually a fairly quick read, as Wright doesn’t go into a lot of depth. Each of these diseases merits much deeper discussion, and of course there are many books dedicated to just that. Instead, Wright looks at commonalities across each disease. She describes how each one started, how it spread, and what was done to contain and eliminate it as a threat. She calls attention to the heroes, like those who developed vaccines or cared for the ill. But there is also the down side — those who spread misinformation and prejudice, who push ineffective remedies for their own gain, or who prevent sufferers from getting treatment.
Forgetting is soothing and probably in our nature. But disregarding, and being ignorant of, plagues of the past makes us more, rather than less, vulnerable to inevitable ones in the future. Because when plagues erupt, some people behave amazingly well. They minimize the death and destruction around them. They are kind. They are courageous. They showcase the best of our nature. Other people behave like superstitious lunatics and add to the death toll.Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright
As you might expect, the plagues that happened farther back in time feel less threatening. We have penicillin for most of these things, after all. But some of the most chilling chapters are the ones that address recent diseases. We feel like we’re going through something unique right now, and yet this sort of thing happens again and again. The chapter on the influenza of 1918 was scarily similar to what we’re dealing with today.
I was most horrified by the chapter on lobomization, because that one isn’t really about a pandemic, it’s about a horrific medical trend that was designed to treat anyone who seemed overly angry or worried (especially women, and never mind that they might have valid things to worry about). People had their heads drilled into – sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not — leaving them unable to think or feel. Basically the surgery turned adults into children who could not reason and who became sociopathic because their consciences were removed. One of JFK’s siblings had this surgery when she was 23 years old, because she had a temper. After the operation she was unable to walk, incontinent, and never spoke more than a few words.
Here’s a suggestion: do not read these chapters close to bedtime. They are very dark, despite what I said about Wright’s sense of humor.
Wright includes an epilogue that discusses HIV/AIDS, because she felt it was too soon to write about it, since many who were impacted by AIDS are alive today. She does point out though, that AIDS is an example of an epidemic that was horribly mishandled, and her very brief discussion of it is devastating.
One of the interesting takeaways from both the Antonine plague and polio is what a difference a strong leader can make during an epidemic … Those men each acknowledged the seriousness of their crises and went about bravely confronting the disease in their midst head-on. They did not ignore it or glamorize it or shame people for having it, because that never works.Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright
If you’re looking for thorough, objective historical research on pandemics, this might not be your book. Instead, Wright’s aim is to bring these deadly diseases to life, so we can learn valuable lessons from the experiences of the past. She does this in three ways at least. One, she describes the effects of each disease in vivid, gruesome detail. Two, she tries to humanize some of the key players in each disease, whether they were heroes or villains or somewhere in between. And third, she writes in an informal, humorous way that kept me reading even when the subject matter got really dark.
I learned a lot from this book, despite its disturbing nature, and I recommend it to everyone. Especially right now.
Note: I read this book for the Nonfiction Reader challenge hosted by Book’d Out (a book about disease).