This is going to sound strange, but being deathly ill never seemed so funny. At least not since the debut of author Jennifer Wright’s newest book, Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them.
In this gut-souring, hilarious, meticulously-researched history book, Ms. Wright introduces readers to some of the filthiest conditions ever recorded that produced some of the most devastating plagues in world history. The book opens with the blood-curdling description of the Antonine Plague, a disease that presented in rash-coated tongues, bloody vomit and black excrement, and which may have caused the fall of the Roman Empire. It moves on to the Bubonic Plague (the Black Death), which was so dreadful that it convinced people to drink their own urine and even live in filthy sewers to ward off the symptoms. There is even a chilling account of a condition called “The Dancing Plague,” a disease where people began dancing wildly and did not stop for days—until their bones protruded from their feet and they died from exhaustion, infection, dehydration or stroke.
With fast-paced wit and impeccable detail, Ms. Wright explains the various eccentricities of the times, including how people believed that miasmas (bad-smelling air) caused plague, and therefore thought it logical to live in sewers or breathe in foul odors as a sort of “vaccination” against diseases. She discusses how some doctors wore waxed robes and donned humongous and quite comical bird-beaked masks stuffed with sweet-smelling flowers or other potions to ward off disease or evil spirits. She even tickles the funny bone with descriptions of various cures for diseases, including exploding frogs and chopped onions dispersed all over the house. Some “cures” are recognizable as precursors to modern-day medicine, like directing people to drink boiled water, engaging in the disposal of filthy bed sheets, and disposing of rotting corpses instead of letting them pile up in the streets.
This delightfully woe-filled book discusses the cause, symptoms and effects of everything from syphilis to cholera; tuberculosis to typhoid to the Spanish Flu. There is even a chapter on “lobotomies” and how physicians who once killed their patients by mistake could now claim that their treatments and procedures were successful because they managed to stop the problem from manifesting without actually killing the patient. One well-known case is the unfortunate story of Rosemary Kennedy, whose oxygen-deprived brain led to temper tantrums of frustration. Because her father was afraid she “would have premarital sex and embarrass the family, he decided a lobotomy might be a cure for her unpredictable behavior.” As the story goes, the lobotomy left her incoherent, incontinent, and unable to walk or talk.
This is a fast-paced and humorous look at death and devastation that makes for fabulous scientific and recreational reading. But be warned: not all of it is funny. In addition to the tragic story of Rosemary Kennedy, there are also several horrifying “I-just-can’t-look-away” pictures of various diseases and how they presented on actual humans, including an image of a child with smallpox, a man with leprosy, and a poor soul with Bubonic Plague. There is also a section on how and why we as a society should learn from our past so that we are not condemned to repeat it, and a detailed list of author’s notes and source material.
Enjoy this amazing read. Or don’t!