Book Review: Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright

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.

My great-grandfather Frank died of TB in 1910.

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.

My great-grandfather Joseph, in the vest and tie, died of typhoid fever in 1922.

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.

Dear Minnesota: The Story of Yost Yost

[This article was originally published in May 2021 by Minnesota PBS on their website Moving Lives Minnesota: Stories of Origin and Immigration.]

Yost Yost, my great-great-grandfather, was born in Nottwil, Switzerland, on November 19, 1829. At the time his double name was a common practice by Swiss parents. Yost’s father, Jacob Yost, was a nail maker and taught his son the trade. Yost, too, made nails before emigrating in 1854. But after he arrived in America and settled in Rochester, New York, he became a blacksmith.

Seated: Agatha and Yost Yost; Standing left to right: Mary,
Aggie, Josephine, Anna, Joseph, Rose, and John

On July 16, 1855, Yost married Agatha Gassman in Rochester, New York. She’d arrived in New York City in January 1855. She was born in Switzerland, but her birth year is a mystery. It has been listed as 1820, 1823, 1825, and 1827. I can only guess why so many different birth years appear on documents clearly referring to the Agatha Gassman who married Yost Yost. Perhaps vanity tempted her to misrepresent her age. Perhaps others made mistakes and recorded her birth year incorrectly.

In the fall of 1856, the availability of land enticed Yost and Agatha to move to Columbus, Minnesota. Yost used his blacksmithing skills during the winter of 1856-57 to support himself and Agatha, pregnant with their first child, Maria, born in April 1857. They had six more children: Josephine, Joseph, John, Agatha, Anna, and Rose.

In the spring of 1857, Yost and Agatha attained land and built a log house. They were successful farmers, and their farm grew to 440 acres. They ground their own flour, sewed their own clothes, and made their own tallow candles. According to family lore, when they bought their first kerosene lamp, they proclaimed it was “real progress.” In spring and fall, Yost walked from Columbus to St. Paul, a distance of 50 miles, to buy supplies they couldn’t produce. After a road was built, he drove a wagon to make the trip.

In August 1864, Yost, 34, enlisted in the Minnesota Cavalry, Hatch’s Battalion, Company E, serving until his honorable discharge in May 1866. I wonder how Agatha coped on a farm with five children, ages 1 to 7, while he served in the military. But he was granted at least one furlough during his enlistment. He was stationed on the Dakota-Minnesota frontier about 50 miles northwest of Mankato. According to a family history written by his grandson Fred, Yost “stopped a cannonball with his leg.” However, Yost’s military records tell a different story. In 1886, Yost applied for an invalid pension because of an injury he received near Fort Ridgely in June 1865. While out on patrol, his horse threw him, and he injured his back. It never completely healed, and as he aged, he developed rheumatism in his spine. How did an injury from tumbling off a horse become a story about being hit by a cannonball? Perhaps Yost was trying to impress his grandchildren. Perhaps once, when asked why he limped, he joked about getting hit by a cannonball, and that became the story.

While living in Columbus, Yost served as a town clerk, a justice of the peace, and a supervisor. The Compendium of History and Biography of Central and Northern Minnesota by George Ogle and Company, published in 1904, states, “Yost has resided in Anoka county for nearly half a century, and he has formed a wide acquaintance and is held in the highest esteem as an agriculturist and worthy citizen.” Yost became a naturalized citizen of the United States on March 23, 1897.

As Yost aged, his back injury made farming difficult. He retired, and his sons, John and Joseph, ran the farm. Yost died on November 3, 1906, just short of his 77th birthday. Agatha died on September 20, 1913. They’re buried at St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Wyoming, Minnesota.

[More Moving Lives posts written by other writers can be read at Moving Lives Minnesota: Stories of Origin and Immigration.]

Mayflies

My view of Mayflies before learning about them

What I knew about mayflies: They’re called mayflies and they molt. I could’ve put my knowledge in a thimble and had room for War and Peace.

What I thought about mayflies: They’re creepy looking, and the exoskeletons they shed are even creepier. I could’ve imagined them starring in a B movie titled, Return of the Giant Mayflies.

Then in June my almost-ten-year-old granddaughter asked, “Why are they called mayflies? I never see them until June.”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “We’re going to have to look that up.” (My standard refrain to cover up my embarrassment because I can’t answer one of her questions about the natural world around me.)

But I had a theory: If mayflies arrive in here in June, perhaps they appear in May in other parts of the Midwest. I live at the western tip of Lake Superior. Everything in spring arrives late because around here winter doesn’t like to pack its bags and leave.

It turned out my theory had holes. In the United States, mayflies hatch anywhere from May to September. Hatching usually starts near the end of May but peaks in June or July, depending on latitude and the current year’s weather. The name mayfly may be a misnomer. But I like the name, so even if they don’t appear around here until June, I’m not starting a movement to rename them juneflies. (Besides there are beetles called June bugs.) Depending on geography, mayflies are also called shadflies, sandflies, dayflies, fishflies, and drakes.

I learned more about mayflies than their aliases. They’re fascinating and useful insects. This shouldn’t have surprised me because our ecosystem is like an intricately woven tapestry of nature. Pull on one thread and the effect ripples through the whole landscape. I was ignorant to assume their only purpose was to gross me out every June.

After mayflies become adults, they molt once. Every year I’d see their exoskeletons stuck to my screen doors, siding, plants, and deck furniture, and I’d cringe. Filmy, cracked, and devoid of color, exoskeletons are eerie. But after learning about mayflies, I look at their abandoned outwear and think about their amazing lives.

Mayflies are adults for only one or two days, and on rare occasions three days, accounts vary. They begin life in the water as fertilized eggs. After they hatch they’re called nymphs and spend about a year (depending on the species) lounging at the bottom of riverbeds and lake bottoms. While not as beautiful as the water nymphs of Greek mythology known for protecting gods and humans who were in peril, the mayfly nymphs are important. They help clean water by eating algae and detritus. And scientists use the number of mayfly larvae present in a river or lake as a bioindicator to gauge the water’s health. So mayfly nymphs can protect humans by informing us if our water quality is in jeopardy–if we’re smart enough to listen.

Before mayflies leave their water homes, they shed their nymph skins, so they can take flight for the first time. At this point they’re called duns (or subimagos). After coming to the water’s surface, they rest and dry their wings. Waterfowl and fish dine on some of them. The duns that survive the predators fly away from the water and molt one last time, becoming adults called spinners (or imagos).

After emerging from the watery homes of their adolescence, mayflies have only one concern–to mate and produce eggs. They don’t have functioning mouths so they can’t eat. As adults they don’t have to worry about finding food or feeding their young. They don’t have to worry about a career path or a mortgage. They don’t have to worry about saving for retirement or signing up for Medicare. As adults they molt, mate, lay eggs if they’re female, and die, all in a day or two.

Of course, a mayfly’s adult life isn’t completely worry free. If spinners are to achieve their one adult ambition–reproduction–they must avoid becoming fresh meat for fish and birds. They also need to conserve energy for mating and laying eggs. This explains why the mayflies I see on my screen door or deck are so impervious to me: It’s risky for them to use up energy by fleeing from me.

After molting, adult males return to an imaginary dance floor above the water. Flying up and forward, then floating down, they beckon the female spinners to dance with them. The spinners pair up and mate in midair. All this looks nothing like my first seventh-grade dance, where boys and girls stood on opposite sides of the gym and gawked at each other. [Watch BBC’s Beautiful Video Clip About Mayflies to see the mayfly mating ritual.]

After the circle-of-life dance, the females descend to the water to lay fertilized eggs. Some females become food for fish before they deposit their eggs. In my research, I learned fly fishers use tied flies resembling duns then spinners during mayfly season. But many females do deposit their eggs, which drift to the bottom of a river or lake. Then most females die, but a few manage to mate again and lay another batch of eggs because they have extra energy reserves, most likely because of what they ate as larvae. (But I like to imagine they have extra energy because they danced a slow waltz instead of a hot-footed jig during their first tango with a male spinner.) Two weeks later the eggs hatch into nymphs.

My new view of mayflies: Lovely as flowers

Before my mayfly education, when I saw mayflies clinging to my door or siding or deck furniture, I left them alone. I didn’t touch them because they creeped me out. Now I can say I leave them alone because I understand they’re saving energy for their big dance. Now, I can appreciate mayflies for purifying rivers and lakes, for working as bioindicators, and for being part of the food chain. Now, I can answer my granddaughter’s question about why mayflies seem to be misnamed.

We need to cherish mayflies and protect them, and if their numbers decrease in our lakes and rivers, we need to figure out why.

[To read more about mayflies: Mayflies: National Wildlife Federation and Britannica: Mayfly. If you live where mayflies swarm, read How to Survive a Massive Mayfly Swarm by Leslie Mertz, Ph.D. Don’t worry it’s not as scary as my imaginary horror flick, Return of the Giant Mayflies.]

Come Again Now

[“Come Again Now” was published Minnesota’s PBS Stations on their webpage Moving Lives Minnesota: Stories of Origin and Immigration on April 17, 2021.]

FRANK AND ROSE MEET

Frank and Rose Youngquist, wedding photo, September 1898

            About 1892, Frank Youngquist left Stillwater to work as a blacksmith in Gordon for Musser-Sauntry, a logging company with interests in Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 1897, Rose Yost left her parents’ farm in Columbus, Minnesota, to work at the Smith Hotel in Gordon, owned by her sister and brother-in-law, Aggie and Jim Smith.

            Frank, 32, handsome, brown-haired, and blue-eyed, met Rose, 29, pretty, dark-haired, and brown-eyed, at the Smith Hotel where he lived. They fell in love and married on September 21, 1898, in Hennepin County, which gave them an opportunity to visit family in Minnesota before returning to Gordon.

FRANK’S MINNESOTA CONNECTION

            Before Frank’s and Rose’s lives intersected in Gordon, they grew up 32 miles from each other in Minnesota. Frank’s father, Johan Youngquist, came from Sweden to Minnesota in 1868, and settled in the Stillwater area. A year later Johan’s wife, Eva, arrived with their four young children, including 2-year-old Frank. They would have four more children.

            Johan’s family probably emigrated because of economic hardships. Sweden’s rapid population growth in the 1800s diminished job opportunities and caused farmland shortages. Crop failures in 1868 and 1869 deepened economic woes, pushing more Swedes to seek opportunity in America. After reading letters from family, who spoke highly of their lives in Minnesota, many Swedes chose to settle there.

            Johan, Eva, and their children prospered as laborers, farmers, blacksmiths, lumberjacks, and business people. The railroads and lumber industry provided plenty of opportunities for immigrants. Five of Frank’s seven siblings spent most of their lives in Minnesota, and his parents lived there until they died.

ROSE’S MINNESOTA CONNECTION

            Rose’s parents, Yost Yost and Agatha Gassman, emigrated from Switzerland around 1854. Yost and Agatha, both Catholic, might have left Switzerland because of religious unrest during the 1800s. Yost lived in the Canton of Lucerne, which became embroiled in religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants after the Jesuits, reinstated by Pope Pius VII in 1814, returned to Switzerland.

            Yost and Agatha married in Rochester, New York, in 1855. A year or two later, they moved to Columbus, Minnesota, to homestead 160 acres. They raised seven children, all born on their farm. One son became an engineer for the Great Northern Railway, working on the mail train out of St. Paul. The other son ran the farm when Yost retired. Their five daughters all married, but only one remained in Minnesota. Yost served as a town clerk and justice of the peace in Columbus. From 1864 to 1866, he served in the Minnesota Cavalry, Hatch’s Battalion, Company E, and was stationed on the Dakota-Minnesota frontier. He and Agatha are buried in St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Wyoming, Minnesota.

TRAGEDY STRIKES

            In 1910, after twelve years of marriage and four children, Frank and Rose, still living in Gordon, died a month apart, Frank, 44, on October 18, and Rose, 41, on November 17.

            Frank lingered four months before dying of tuberculosis. He wished to be buried in Stillwater at the Fairview Cemetery with his father and two brothers. Frank had lived over half his life in Minnesota, and his mother and some family members still resided there. After Rose died from heart failure, she was buried next to Frank. Their children, George, 11, Elmer, 9, Leslie, 8, and Lola, 4, stayed in Gordon. Aggie and Jim Smith, Rose’s family, looked after them.

GEORGE’S COMFORTING TRADITION

George Youngquist with his wife Olive and Frank, their first child, circa 1940

            Perhaps because of a mysterious, debilitating illness George had when he was about 1½, he was close to his parents. The illness left him unable to walk, so his father forged railings in his blacksmith shop and attached them to the walls of their home. Encouraged by his parents, George pulled himself up and held the railings. He regained strength and learned to walk again. However, as a young schoolboy, his illness left him unable to run and play with other children. To entertain George, Frank taught him blacksmithing skills after school. George cherished the time with his father. Thirty-some years later, a doctor told George that he had had polio.

            From the 1930s until 1979, because George never forgot his parents’ love and kindness, he drove 120 miles from Gordon to Fairview Cemetery in Stillwater, Minnesota, to visit their graves either on or near every Memorial Day. By the time George and his family arrived, any Memorial Day services were over. But in the hushed cemetery with spring unfurling, George remembered his parents.

            Whenever George had company, he always bid farewell to his visitors by saying, “Come again now.” Perhaps, each year when he left the cemetery, he imagined his parents telling him, “Come again now.” And he did until he lost his eyesight in the winter of 1979, two-and-a-half years before he passed away just shy of his 82nd birthday.

[More Moving Lives posts written by other writers can be read at Moving Lives Minnesota: Stories of Origin and Immigration.]