Bubonic plague, leprosy, Typhoid Mary — they’re all here in this entertaining read just waiting to disturb and amaze you. I realize that “plague” and “entertaining” are two words you might not expect to see together in a sentence, but trust me when I say this: Jennifer Wright writes about terrible, beastly plagues and leaves the reader wanting more. More writing, that is. Not more plagues. Never did I expect to have so much fun reading about things like smallpox, cholera and the Spanish flu, and if it wasn’t for an enthusiastic recommendation from a coworker, chances are I would have passed it by.
The reason it’s so enjoyable? The author has a gift for presenting truly ghastly information — the chapter on syphilis is enough to make you turn to celibacy — with aplomb and a healthy dose of humor.
The biggest takeaway from reading this book? We should all be grateful that we live in the 21st century. Yes, we still have our share of incurable conditions, but at least we don’t have to rely on treatments involving exploding frogs or eating crushed emeralds. Or imagine having the bubonic plague in the 14th century and having a “doctor” visit you wearing a creepy bird mask.
And don’t get me started on sanitation.
The whole concept of sanitation — personal and otherwise — has been a relatively recent development, so be very grateful for soap and garbage service.
In addition to learning a lot about diseases and treatments — some medically sound, some formed from complete ignorance or total quackery — I came away with a sense of caution and hope.
Wright makes it clear that another epidemic or “plague” could happen at any time, and we should be as prepared as possible. But there is also a great deal of hope to be had even during a widespread contagion. Channeling the opening catchphrase to the 1970s television show “The Six Million Dollar Man”: We have the technology.
Technology to study diseases and to develop treatments, maybe even cures for whatever comes next. And past medical heroes — for instance, Dr. Jenner and his smallpox vaccine and Dr. Salk and his polio vaccine — have proven that medicine — not flimflam — provides us with the best chance for survival.
For a unique look into the history of plagues and how humans have battled against them (by the way, not looking at sick people as a way to prevent disease — yeah, doesn’t work; nor does applying boiling onions to buboes — aka bubonic plague sores) add “Get Well Soon” to your reading list. Also, make sure to visit your doctor, and cover your mouth when you cough. And, for Pete’s sake, stay away from boiling onions.