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Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains…

Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine's…

by Molly Caldwell Crosby

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Alongside the 1918 flu pandemic, there was another epidemic, and epidemic of sleeping sickness. Over a period of years, it affected more than 5 million people, killing about one-third of its victims during its acute phase and leaving about one-third more to die inch by inch, minute by minute over a period of years. Since the epidemic ended in the 1930's, it has reappeared only sporadically around the world. However, we still do not know what causes the disease, nor do we know how to treat it. We also do not know whether or when it may recur in its epidemic form.

This could have been a very good and informative work on an important topic. However, it is instead disjointed and full of irrelevancies. Crosby has organized the book around "case studies" of victims of the disease (one of them being the wife of J. P. Morgan), and research and findings about the disease are presented in a haphazard manner, with earlier conclusions later being repudiated and vice versa. I ended up not being clear on where our knowledge of this disease stands today.

My main complaint about the book, though, is that it is full of entirely extraneous and irrelevant material, and becomes more of a social history than a scientific book. For example, describing one of the doctors walking through Penn Station on the way to see a patient in 1925, she goes into a description of the magazine covers on the newsstand: Ladies Home Journal--color picture of a bride and groom; Good Housekeeping--mother reading to her daughter; Field and Stream--man and woman on a picnic beside a stream; Saturday Evening Post--a Norman Rockwell drawing; she even notes a brand-new weekly--the New Yorker. A few pages later, the NYC skyline is sighted: it has "inspired many." "In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald (blah, blah, blah)""; "Ezra Pound described (blah, blah, blah)"; "Ayn Rand saw (blah, blah blah)"; "And Frank Lloyd Wright (blah, blah, blah)". I could give pages of examples like these. They really grated on me.

A couple of interesting speculations on her part jumped out at me. Woodrow Wilson in Europe shortly after the end of World War I suffered a case of flu, and apparently experienced major personality changes as well as a mental decline and physical handicaps afterwards which were kept secret from the public, which she speculates may have been the result of the sleeping sickness. (And which ultimately led to changes in the disability laws regarding the presidency.) She also speculates that some of Hitler's aberrant personality traits may have been the result of sleeping sickness, as he too suffered from a case of the flu around the time of World War I. (There are some intriguing studies mentioned regarding the connection between influenza and this form of sleeping sickness, but whether the connection is merely coincidental or meaningful is never fully clarified).

Apparently, Oliver Saks's book Awakenings covers this same topic, and in a much more cohesive way. I have placed it on my Kindle. ( )
  arubabookwoman | Oct 20, 2015 |
What was it? Why doesn't anyone ever get it anymore? How do I know I don't have it now? ( )
  picardyrose | Nov 23, 2014 |
I just finished listening to the audio version of this book and came away quite a bit more pleased with it than I was with the text version. The narrator read well, with good pacing, tone and few mispronunciations, but more than that, the lush descriptions that were a bit tedious as text came alive in the audio format. I found myself appreciating Crosby's knowledge of New York and her attention to details like what the weather was like on the dates from the case study notes.

Of course the absence of pictures in an audiobook did lead me to go online several times to try to chase down either specific or similar images to go along with Crosby's descriptions.

An interesting book, worth listening to . ( )
  Helcura | Jun 4, 2014 |
An interesting examination of both the time period and the disease, but it was strange reading a medical mystery where no answers were ever given and every case study ended in tragedy. I think possibly a different narrative structure might have suited this book better. ( )
  jen.e.moore | Mar 30, 2013 |
Subtitle: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries
Molly Caldwell Crosby
Tuesday, April 10, 2012 8:54 PM

I searched out this book as part of my recent interest in the influenza epidemic and post-encephalitic Parkinson’s disease. It was not impressive. Ms Crosby spends a great deal of prose in imaginative descriptions of New York and other settings, and does not say very much about her subject, the clinical features of the epidemic. She knows of von Enconomo, does not describe his pathological findings, and is much more interested in the development of the neurological institute in New York than in clinical case descriptions. I learned indirectly that the encephalitis often presented with long periods of sleep, and was followed by bizarre behavior (one young woman took out her own eyes), and Parkinson’s, but I was not satisfied with the depth of the book. ( )
1 vote neurodrew | Apr 10, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0425225704, Hardcover)

Another fascinating foray into medical history from the author of The American Plague

In 1918, a world war was raging, and a lethal strain of influenza was circling the globe. In the midst of all this death, a bizarre disease appeared in Europe. Eventually known as encephalitis lethargica, or sleeping sickness, it would spread across the world, leaving millions dead or locked in institutions.

Then, in 1927, it would disappear as suddenly as it had arrived-or so the doctors at first thought.

Asleep, set in 1920s and '30s New York, follows a group of neurologists through hospitals and insane asylums as they try to solve this worldwide epidemic.

The symptoms could include not only unending sleep but dangerous insomnia, facial tics, catatonia, Parkinson's, and even violent insanity. Molly Caldwell Crosby, acclaimed author of The American Plague, explores the frightening history of this forgotten disease- and details the frantic effort to conquer it before it strikes again.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:59 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Crosby, acclaimed author of "The American Plague," explores the frightening history of a long forgotten disease--sleeping sickness--and details the frantic effort to conquer it before it strikes again.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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