In the midst of a pandemic, I’ve been reading about pandemics. How depressing, you think! Not really. It’s more comforting than you might imagine. Most of the pandemics I’ve read about were worse than COVID-19, and I don’t say that to make light of COVID. It’s killed many people, caused long-term health issues, and disrupted lives and the economy, but it can’t compare to the Black Death or the Great Influenza of 1918.
Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright is a well-written sampling of killer pandemics. Her book covers the Antonine, bubonic, and dancing plagues, plus smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, cholera, leprosy, typhoid, the Spanish flu (Great Influenza of 1918), encephalitis lethargica, lobotomies, and polio. She describes the diseases and how they killed people, but doesn’t dwell on the grotesque. Instead, she focuses on the development of medical treatments and the people who worked to end plagues and pandemics. She writes with a gentle humor that helps readers digest what is a formidable list of population-depleting diseases. Fortunately, most of them have been mitigated by cures, treatments, or vaccines.
Wright’s book provides historical perspective. The bubonic plague killed quickly and painfully, wiping out tens of millions of people in the 14th Century. Worldwide death estimates from the Great Influenza of 1918 range between 25 million and 100 million (p. 197). It, too, killed quickly, especially people in their twenties. And horrifically, smallpox wiped out entire civilizations in the New World. Those statistics provide some comfort when compared to COVID statistics. Modern medicine is another comfort. Medical scientists have been able to develop working vaccines and helpful medicines in a short time to help combat COVID deaths.
Also, the historical details Wright’s book provides can—strangely enough—be a soothing balm. Some of what people are doing and saying about COVID seems tame in comparison to behavior during past pandemics. Some suggested “preventatives” against the bubonic plague were to eat crushed emeralds, live in a sewer, avoid bad smells, place chopped onions in your house, drink your urine, and don’t look at sick people (Wright p. 29-30). Among the many bizarre and useless cures for the bubonic plague were bloodletting and poultices made with feces (p. 40). Often prescribed treatments made people suffer more. In defense of people from the past, medical science wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and people were desperate during frightening times, like they sometimes are today.
Wright’s chapter on tuberculosis was scary. I was in the camp of people who thought that tuberculosis was mostly a disease of the past. It’s not. Tuberculosis kills 1.3 million (Wright, p. 125) to 1.5 million (CDC) lives a year. Most of the cases of TB occur in countries outside of wealthy nations like the United States. But mutations in the TB bacteria make it more resistant to drugs, and when people with TB travel, they spread the disease. “Recent models show that unless we scale up efforts to address this growing threat, the number of people dying from drug-resistant TB will nearly double every 5 years” (CDC). There’s also the wise adage: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We need to pay attention.
In her epilogue, Wright discusses the AIDS epidemic. She didn’t give AIDS its own chapter because she feels there are people who lived through the AIDS epidemic who could tell the story better than she can. However, she wrote eight pages about AIDS, explaining how the epidemic was mishandled and how prejudice against gays made the epidemic worse. I believe she could tell the story of AIDS and make it as engaging and enlightening as the other epidemics she wrote about. And if she did, I would read that book.