A lightweight history of plagues from an author who is “invested in this study…because I think knowing how diseases have been combatted in the past will be helpful in the future.”
Wright (It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History, 2015) injects her persona throughout the book, using asides to assert her opinions and invite reader agreement. So we learn that poor John Snow, the hero who persuaded London authorities in the 1850s to turn off the Broad Street pump and thus save the neighborhood from cholera, was a boring fellow she would never want to spend time with. On the other hand, many of her heroes or things they did were “cool,” a word that should have been banished from the text along with “fun.” However, Wright has done her homework. She begins with a second-century plague during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, which was probably smallpox and no doubt contributed to Rome’s eventual decline. The author then moves on to cover the more well-known horrors, including bubonic plague, smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, polio, and leprosy. She also adds a chapter on the dancing plague of medieval times, which was unusual in that people treated the victims kindly and tried to help. The 20th century brought us Typhoid Mary and the Spanish flu of World War I. The flu was followed by the still-mysterious encephalitis lethargica (see Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings). The midcentury brought the polio vaccine but also a plague by another name: lobotomy. Wright notes that there were 40,000 lobotomies in the U.S. from the 1930s through the 1970s. Many of the operations were performed by Walter Freeman, whom Wright justifiably vilifies for his tireless promotion of the surgery for all mental ills. The author saves the AIDS epidemic for an epilogue as a worst-case scenario of society’s stigmatizing and blaming the victim, singling out the Reagan administration for its do-nothing approach.
There’s no question that Wright has covered a lot of medical territory with good information; if only she had curbed her enthusiasm to pontificate.