Plagues can wipe out entire populations and create fear and great mystery in how they spread. An author who has explored plagues and dangerous diseases explains.
- Jennifer Wright, author, Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them
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Plagues and Dread Diseases
Nancy Benson: Dangerous diseases, they make us sick and may even kill us, some diseases may even wipe out huge numbers of people and aliens are not immune, at least not in literature. In H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, “War of the Worlds,” Martians invade earth and humans are terrorized. No weapons of war can kill the aliens, and then just when all seems hopeless, the Martians mysteriously start dying and are eventually completely wiped out. What gets them in the end? Earthly, microbial infection, in other words – plague.
Jennifer Wright: I guess when I say plague I am talking about any disease that seems to strike down an otherwise very health people who are in the prime of their lives, that people don’t immediately know how to respond to or have a cure for.
Benson: That’s Jennifer Wright, author of “Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them.”
Wright: One of the most horrifying stories to me is the story of small pox, and how when Spanish settlers brought it over to the New World it almost immediately completely destroyed the Aztec Empire and Incan Empire. These went from being highly developed civilizations to, within a matter of years, simply not existing.
Benson: And then there’s Typhoid Mary, perhaps history’s most infamous plague carrier.
Wright: Typhoid Mary is such a fascinating story because she starts out as this wonderful success story, she was an Irish immigrant, she was an incredibly talented cook, she came to America, she was working for very very wealthy families on Park Avenue, the only problem was she was also an asymptomatic carrier to typhoid. And that meant that she had typhoid and could pass it on to other people, but she herself never got sick.
Benson: You can imagine what happens next. Everyone in the family she serves gets sick and dies. So Mary takes a position with another family and they all die too.
Wright: And Typhoid Mary just seemed to think that she had really bad luck and it was just really unfortunate that every time she went to work for a new family, people started dying around her. But it was only when this very intrepid health inspector started to notice she seemed to be a common link between all of these outbreaks of typhoid that they found out that she was the one spreading it.
Benson: Typhoid Mary is one of the more celebrated cases in Wright’s book, but not the strangest. Wright describes what’s called the “Dancing plague” and it starts with a woman in the 1500’s who, as the name suggests, just can’t stop dancing.
Wright: A historian from the period around 1518 said she was probably just doing it to annoy her husband because he hated dancing. That was not the case; the “Dancing plague” was a hysterical outbreak that within a few weeks, 400 people in the village of Strasbourg where they lived followed her lead and began dancing. And that sounds like it would kind of fun, but they couldn’t stop, so they were dancing til bones were poking out of their feet. They were dancing until they had heart attacks in the street, their relatives would try to restrain them – they broke free of their restraints so they could go back to dancing. It was a really horrible, psychological outbreak.
Benson: Wright says historians have conflicting theories as to what caused the dancing plague.
Wright: Some people think it’s the result of Aragon poisoning, that then caused people to convulse but all the records are very clear that people were dancing, it wasn’t convulsing. So I think it was probably an outbreak of hysterical madness, so especially because there were a lot of psychological factors at play.
Benson: Those factors included war, feminine, and starvation. Wright says what eventually alleviated the dancers suffering was more dancing. But this time it was dancing around a shrine dedicated to St. Vitus; the Patron Saint of Dancing.
Wright: But the miraculous part of that story to me is just that the town really came together and said, “We want to help our neighbors.” They were incredible compassionate, they didn’t demonize anyone who was stricken with this bizarre plague, which we still don’t do that today. In the AIDS epidemic we got very good at demonizing people who were afflicted with an illness.
Benson: Wright says throughout history we’ve made many mistakes in response to illnesses we don’t understand.
Wright: The biggest one is to try to decide that everybody who is sick has somehow brought it upon themselves by being a bad person – diseases don’t care about who you are.
Benson: Wright says she feels incredibly lucky to have lived a life that has been plague free so far, but she’s not holding her breath that her luck will continue.
Wright: My generation at least is a generation that has never had contemporary die of inexplicable causes in American. Obviously if you just lived through Ebola in West Africa that’s a very different story. But we’re one of the first generations that has ever had that kind of luck. An older generation experienced AIDS, the generation before that experienced Polio, the generation before that experienced the Spanish Flu, I don’t want to seem very fatalistic and say that we’re due. But I would be very surprised if, I’m 30 now, I’d be very surprised if I got to live until old age without ever seeing a plague break out.
Benson: Not a cheery thought, but perhaps a realistic one. We’ll see if modern medicine can continue to find cures for mysterious diseases like those that have plagued us in the past. We also need to take to heart hard won lessons about not judging people on the basis of their health. You can learn more about Jennifer Wright and her book, “Get Well Soon” by visiting our website, RadioHealthJournal.net. Our writer/producer this week is Polly Hansen. Our Production Director is Sean Waldron. I’m Nancy Benson.