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Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and…

Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them (2017)

by Jennifer Wright

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Not everyone enjoys books about the history of plagues. I don't know why.

Well, all right, I do know. But I've always found them fascinating.

This is an overview of some of the greatest plagues in the recorded history of the world, starting with the Antonine plague in Rome under Marcus Aurelius, and ending with AIDS. What Wright is focused on is less the medical details than the way both people generally and government and social leadership responded.

Plagues are always terrifying, and in the absence of effective medical treatment, the natural human response is fear. Believing that disease was spread by miasma, i.e., bad-smelling air, wholly ineffective and sometimes really damaging methods are used in useless efforts to stop it.

What Wright finds is that strong leadership, whether pragmatic or compassionate, makes a huge difference. Marcus Aurelius subsidized the cost of funerals, so that people could dispose of their family members with dignity--and so that bodies didn't pile up in the streets, spreading both panic and more disease. In contrast, in response to the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s, the Reagan administration laughed at it when they didn't completely ignore it. They blamed the victims, and weren't interested in seriously funding the search for the infectious agent that caused it. Of course, this was in the late 20th century, and unlike during the Roman Empire, we had far more developed ways of dealing with the dead whose families either couldn't afford, or refused to bury them. Yet many of the sick found themselves rejected by their families, blocked from attending school, shunned by the people who should have helped them. Elected politicians suggested AIDS sufferers should be quarantined in camps, or even killed.

And this is not just a difference between ancient Rome and modern America. Both patterns of response have been shown in different places at different times. Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped lead, even in the midst of depression and war, huge advances in the care of polio patients and in research into polio. Dwight Eisenhower, when the Salk vaccine was developed, took immediate steps to ensure no child would miss out on being vaccinated because their families couldn't afford it. I remember, as a young child, standing in a school gymnasium to line up for the free distribution of the polio vaccine. In the 19th century, the then Kingdom of Hawaii quarantined leprosy patients in a colony without even the most basic social and infrastructure supports, and conditions were horrific until the arrival of a Belgian Roman Catholic missionary, Father Damian.

In the course of this examination of the history of plagues, Wright gives us stories that are terrifying, heartwarming, and more often than you might expect, funny. It's interesting, enlightening, and compelling.

Highly recommended. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
A very well researched an interesting book on the dominant plagues that have dogged and doomed mankind in history. Wright's sense of humor was also entertaining as she kept up a pratter of commentary quips throughout.

I had heard of many of these plagues but never understood a great deal of what they were about other than killing a lot of people. So I was educated on that sure enough. I found the most intriguing and scary knowledge was that the great pandemic influenza of 1918 could not only come back but may run rampant again without much we can do to combat it. Now in its dormant stage the thought of that is rather sobering. So despite our miraculous medical system we are not quite out of the woods yet so to speak.

She concludes the book on something of a political rant on the AIDS epidemic that she blames primarily those in the Reagan administration for not taking serious and in fact basically ignoring. An informative book overall with the link to history and the many dramas and heroes that stepped forward to conquer some of these, primarily polio. ( )
  knightlight777 | Jul 26, 2018 |
Wow. Just, wow. I think this book officially marks the first time I've checked out a book from the library entirely on a whim from the title, and then ended up buying the book while reading it. This is a fascinating, entertaining, and highly educational account, all at the same time. People who know me know I'm somewhat picky about my nonfiction. I LOVE learning new stuff, but can't stand spending voluntary time on anything dry or not engaging. But, dang, was this book a winner of a pick. Each chapter is dedicated to a different historical plague, detailing the illness, the toll it took, and the efforts taken to combat it, all in a casual narrative style. It definitely feels more like being told a story at the dinner table (albeit a somewhat disturbing one) than exploring an academic work, while also highlighting several important figures that you won't have heard of who worked tirelessly in the often thankless work of saving lives during times when medical knowledge or public views might well consist of little more than a conviction that the ill were cursed or somehow deserving. This is thus not just a trip through the history of the world's great plagues, but also a commentary on the treatment of the sick and dying, an overview of both our ignorance and our compassion, and a condemnation of human apathy and disregard. Overall, this is definitely an author who I will now be watching, and I look forward to hunting down her other works. ( )
  TiffanyAK | Jun 11, 2018 |
A book on plagues through the ages seems like it would, by its very nature, be incredibly depressing (and/or dry), but Jennifer Wright made every chapter absolutely fascinating, and her tone is such that I found myself laughing on multiple occasions. She never mocks the victims of the plagues, but she does poke at human foibles and failings, as well as highlighting the amazing things that people did when confronted with these various diseases. I really enjoyed the audio, and I am very glad to have modern medicine, clean water, and a knowledge that neither onions nor crushed emeralds are effective cures for what ails you. ( )
  shadrachanki | Jun 8, 2018 |
I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. I sure didn't expect the kind of humor that had me laughing out loud over descriptions of plagues and diseases. But please don't think Wright makes light of suffering; that's the last thing she would do. Rather, she shows us how kindness can make a difference to people suffering from illness.

She points up the difference between reactions to bubonic plague in Europe, where even children are abandoned by their parents when they fall ill, and the significant difference Father Damian made to the lives of the lepers to whom he ministered, and with whom he lived. She shows us how, in the case of The Dancing Plague, (the nature of which is still unknown) the kindness and consideration shown to the sufferers by their fellow citizens may well have eased their suffering.

I think it's telling that the most horrific things that Wright discusses are human actions. She details the laws against warning people of the Spanish Flu during WWI, laws which certainly cost more lives. And the worst is the plague of lobotomies performed in the early to mid 20th century. In the U.S., most were performed by Dr. Walter Freeman, a neuropsychiatrist who was not a surgeon and had no business performing invasive procedures on anyone. Freeman "sold" lobotomies as cure-alls, and even once performed one on a patient who had changed his mind. Freeman went to his hotel, chased him around the room, knocked him out with his electro-shock equipment and went ahead with the procedure in spite of the lack of consent.

Disease is a part of life. Even so, many of the older diseases are forgotten now in the era of vaccines and antibiotics. But Wright warns that things like Spanish Flu could still recur in the future. She also comes down hard on the anti-vaxxers, as she should, because they embrace pseudo-science to the danger of the rest of us.

But still, Wright manages to take a light-hearted approach to all this. She's the sort of person you want to be sitting with at a party, smart, well-informed, hilariously funny, thoughtful, and one heck of a story-teller. On the strength of this book, I want to read her others. All of them! (I think there are only three in total, but she's young; barring a nasty bout of plague she should be writing for a long time yet.)

If you're fascinated by the history of disease and how it shaped our world, this is a book you should read. ( )
  Tracy_Rowan | May 22, 2018 |
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For Mom and Dad. Would it kill you to go to the doctor now and then?
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When I tell people that I am writing a book on plagues, well-meaning acquaintances suggest I add a modern twist.
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"A humorous book about history's worst plagues from the Antonine Plague, to leprosy, to polio and the heroes who fought them In 1518, in a small town in France, Frau Troffea began dancing and didn't stop. She danced herself to her death six days later, and soon thirty-four more villagers joined her. Then more. In a month more than 400 people had died from the mysterious dancing plague. In late-nineteenth-century England an eccentric gentleman founded the No Nose Club in his gracious townhome a social club for those who had lost their noses, and other body parts, to the plague of syphilis for which there was then no cure. And in turn-of-the-century New York, an Irish cook caused two lethal outbreaks of typhoid fever, a case that transformed her into the notorious Typhoid Mary and led to historic medical breakthroughs. Throughout time, humans have been terrified and fascinated by the plagues they've suffered from. Get Well Soon delivers the gruesome, morbid details of some of the worst plagues in human history, as well as stories of the heroic figures who fought to ease their suffering. With her signature mix of in-depth research and upbeat storytelling, and not a little dark humor, Jennifer Wright explores history's most gripping and deadly outbreaks."--… (more)

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