Get Well Soon
History's Worst Plagues and
The Heroes Who Fought Them

Jennifer Wright
(Henry Holt)
As you can tell from the somewhat equivocal title - - - Get Well Soon - - - this is supposed to be a lighthearted look at those diseases that have inflicted the worst mortality rates on humanity. This includes the Bubonic Plague, Smallpox, Syphilis, TB, Cholera, Typhoid, and the Spanish Flu, which between January 1918 and December 1920 infected 500 million people across the world (including remote Pacific islands and the Arctic). It resulted in the deaths of between fifty and one hundred million people.

This represents almost five percent of the world's population at the time. A similar outbreak in 2017, with the same mortality rate - - - world population now being estimated at close to 7.5 billion - - - would mean an international infection with 375,000,000 people dying in less than two years, that figure being equivalent to the entire present population of the United States.

Ms. Wright's style strikes one as a bit of fatal infection lite. For instance, she offers up some light-hearted information on the Spanish Flu, tells us that the infection had little if any to do with Spain. It was called such because during World War One, that country, being neutral, was able to accurately report the numbers of deaths from the flu. France, England, Germany and the United States hid the true mortality rates in their own countries, considering it, during wartime, bad for morale. (It is an old saying that the first to die during times of war is the truth.)

Spain, being Spain, did not name the disease the "American" (or the "Kansas") Flu, since it was believed to have begun in a military barracks in the mid-west. Rather, it was titled el Soldado de Nápoles after an operetta popular in Madrid around this time. Ms. Wright tells us, as a funny aside, that Federico Romero, one of the librettists of the musical, told reporters that the zarzuela's most popular number, "The Naples Soldier," was as catchy as the flu.

§   §   §

This habit of blaming virulent diseases on another country has an honored place in international relations, and was brought to high art with the arrival of syphilis in Europe in the late sixteenth century. The English called it the "French disease," the French called it the "Spanish disease," Germans called it the "French evil," Russians called it the "Polish disease," Poles called it the "Turkish disease," Japan called it the "Chinese pox," and Turks called it the "Christian disease." The Amerindians, being a kindly people, agreed, but gave it no name, just died from it, a telling gift of those who, no doubt, presumed to deliver it in the name of the Lord.

In keeping with her light-hearted touch on traumatic disease, Wright announces in the chapter on the flu that "the purpose of this book is not to scare you."

    Instead, like all good books, it is intended to distract you from the screaming baby one aisle over from the airplane seat where you are currently trapped for the next five hours.

Despite Aristotle's cautions about logic, this statement good-naturedly assumes

  • that we are reading this book on an airplane;

  • that airplanes notoriously carry screaming babies on all flights; and

  • that this is a good book.
We are not so sure about the first two, but our thoughts on exploring thirteen deadly "plagues" with a song in your heart and a twinkle in your eye is not necessarily, possibly, the best way to do an important history. A disease that, in two years, can cancel the lives of one hundred million people deserves some respect, some awe even - - - but a titter? We think not.

§   §   §

The author reports a merry children's rhyme from those days,

    I had little bird,
    It's name was Enza.
    I opened the window
    and in flew Enza,

but there should be some other things that rise above doggerel.

I'm old enough to have known a person who was traumatized by this outbreak. She was the aunt of someone I was courting during the early 50s. Back in 1918, she remembered tending her boyfriend, just home from the front, as he, over a few days, sickened and died.

He didn't die of the flu, however - - - which we don't find explained in Plagues. The flu laid waste to his immune system; that was quickly followed by pneumonia: the virus lives in the lungs of all of us, but only becomes catastrophic when the body cannot handle it. It was, apparently, how most of these young people succumbed, not from the flu itself, but from the resultant weakening of the body's resistance, and pneumonia.

At one time, they used to call pneumonia "the old man's friend," but whoever made up this quip should be shot at dawn. Pneumonia is dying by slow drowning - - - almost as vicious as anything dreamed up by John Yoo and the CIA.

It is, in truth, nature's own waterboarding, and it's nobody's friend.

Thirty years after the death of her fiancé, when we sometimes asked her about her life, Aunt Lacy would come to this point in her story, then disappear into the next room, hiding from us and the memory of her love dying (literally) in her arms.

§   §   §

In the fifth paragraph of the chapter on the flu, Ms. Wright says "if you mention Spanish flu, most will think that maybe some people had to take a week or two off work in Spain because they were throwing up a whole lot." I'll put this in the same pot that I do the earlier part of the book, in which Wright tells of friends responding to her news that she is writing a book on plagues.

They ask if these sicknesses could be compared to us all using cell phones all the time, to which she responds,

    No, my interest lies more with the kind of plague where you break out in sores all over your body and countless people you know and love die, rapidly, within a few months of each other, in the prime of their lives. And there is nothing you can do, and everyone is dead, and everything is death, and all of earth seems to be a vast wasteland of corpses, and wait, here, allow me to show you some absolutely horrific pictures.

To add some fat to the fire, we learn from the publisher's blurb on the back flap that Ms. Wright "lives in New York City with her fiancé, who is pretty sure she has a cold and not the bubonic plague."

You may wish to avoid this title, but all is not completely lost. The best chapter in Get Well Soon is not even a chapter. Maybe Wright, at the very end, got a sense of her not-so-amiable brashness. This "chapter" is labelled "Epilogue" and is dedicated to the plague of AIDS, which in 2013 alone was responsible for over a million-and-a-half deaths, along with immense personal suffering of families of men, women and children, mostly south of the Sahara. Ms. Wright's scorn for those who ignored the implications of AIDS when it first became public knowledge forty years ago is palpable.

She quotes a White House press conference held in 1982, when religious writer and reporter Lester Kinsolving asked Ronald Reagan's press secretary Larry Speakes about this new plague.

    "What's AIDS?" Speakes asked.

    "It's known as the 'gay plague,'" Kinsolving replied.

    Everyone laughed.

    "I don't have it," Speakes replied. "Do you?"

    The room erupted in laughter. "There's no personal experience here," Speakes cracked.

And then there was William Buckley, star at the public broadcaster PBS. He wrote that everyone with AIDS should be "tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals."

--- Carlos Amantea
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