The Disease history book cont’d…

More fascinating notes from the book, Disease by Mary Dobson. (Part One of review is here.)

According to the author, the actual origin of the popular drink of gin-and-tonic actually got kickstarted with the disease malaria and its not-very-tasty medicine, quinine.

In the early days of the British Raj, there was a big public health problem with malaria, and quinine was a main staple of malaria prevention and treatment. Dobson reports that the British people would add quinine to Indian tonic water (to make it taste better?) and that led to the basis of a gin-and-tonic.

(Something similar happened in the States as well: during the U.S. Civil War, every Union soldier in the malarial zone was given a daily dose of quinine sulphate dissolved in whisky. Huh.)

Unrelated random fact: One famous smallpox survivor was Queen Elizabeth I who contracted the disease in 1592. Her penchant for wearing her face covered in white lead and vinegar is thought to have been her strategy to cover up her smallpox facial scars. They are also thought to have been the reason why she didn’t want to get married as she didn’t want to show anyone her scarred skin. (Poor thing.)

Stalin had smallpox as well, btw, but he had all his photos touched up to hide that. (Remind you of any other orange-colored world leader who would also probably do that?) President Lincoln survived the same disease. And so did Pocahantas (who died in 1616 on a visit to England, possibly of smallpox.)

Moving on to polio and its history of vaccination: I didn’t know this, but in 1955, Cutter Laboratories (a U.S. company and one manufacturer of the then-recently licensed Salk vaccine), distributed faulty serum. A total of 200,000 people were inoculated with this serum which then turned out to contain “virulent non-attenuated polio virus”. Seventy thousand people became ill; 200 children were left paralyzed and ten died. (I’m wondering if this is controversy is somehow related to the ferocious antivaxxers of today? Vaccinate your kids, folks.)

So, by now, you might have surmised that I may have enjoyed this gruesome but straightforward book. I really did (and so much so that I’m going to keep this copy to read at another time).

However, there was one (easily preventable) thing that kept popping up – poor production work with the graphics.

Whoever the poor soul was who added the graphic elements to one of the later proofs kept overlaying their image outlines so that the rest of the image field would cover up one end of some of the paragraphs which meant that there were whole sections of text where you had to sort of guess what it was trying to say.

I don’t want to seem too judge-y. It’s an easy thing to miss, in general, but proofreading/editing should have happened. I would have thought that if you had a well-written serious tome about public health hazards from the past, the least you could do would be to check for that novice error. (Maybe it was an intern. It’s intern season…) 😉

If I had been Dobson, I would have been disappointed in the final product (if she ever saw it): her research, her words, probably her collection of illustrations – and then there is that?

That aside, the book did have some lovely qualities: glossy pages, plenty of high-res graphics, loads of historical ephemera and lots of intriguing sidebars with fascinating bits and pieces about whatever disease was the topic for that section.

Ghoulish but fascinating. Highly recommended.

Just FYI: Other medical history (or medical-related) reads for JOMP include:

Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers – Mary Dobson (2007)

Now, there is a dismal solitude… shops are shut… people rare, very few walk about… and there is a deep silence in almost every place. If any voice can be heard, it is the groans of the dying, and the funeral knell of them that are ready to be carried to their graves.

Thomas Vincent, describing the Great Plague of London, 1665-1666.

Seeing as we are in the midst of this current pandemic, what better time (thought I) than to read more about other diseases that have occurred throughout history. So, shopping my TBR shelves, I found this book…

This title was written by Mary Dobson, a medical historian who was director of the Wellcombe Unit for the History of Medicine and a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. (Thus, she knows her facts and there are a lot of them. She’s also, pleasingly, a very good writer.) 

As the book’s subtitle tells you, the contents cover health emergencies over the years, ranging from syphilis to schistosomiasis (due to parasitic worms in tropical aquatic snails) to SARS and bird flu. 

It was really interesting to read that Dobson, a scholar of medical history, also mentions the then-current widespread concern for another modern flu pandemic, perhaps from animal vectors (and this was when the book was published in 2007, 13 years ago).  And yet the Orange Goblin disbanded the U.S. Pandemic Taskforce last year since “we didn’t need it anymore.” <smh>

[Aside: I am so curious to read the not-yet-published NF account of this particular current-day pandemic. You know there are gonna be a few titles out there that will cover it.]

Back to the book: the chapters are divided into Bacterial Diseases, Parasitic Diseases, Viral Diseases and Lifestyle Diseases, and each chapter (and disease) goes into depth (including pretty detailed timelines) to cover the basic history of the topic for that section. It was absolutely fascinating for me.

Since I am a medical history nerd, I thought it might be best to approach this using bullet points. Here we go: 

  • Quarantines first started when the Black Death arrived at a Venetian colony called Ragusa. The inhabitants detained travelers from an infected nearby island for thirty days (or trente giorni). This time period proved not quite long enough so they increased the time period to forty days (or quaranti giorni) – thus, the word “quarantine”. Now you know… 😉 
  • Speaking of plague, you may remember that 17th-century physicians had the wearing-a-mask activity and social-distancing down to a science… They would also stuff herbs down the beak to help cover up the smell of rotting flesh. (See pic below.) Luckily, we don’t need that just yet. 🙂
  • Another word-related random fact: stethoscope. Invented in 1816 by French physician Réné Théophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781-1826), who had been embarrassed when treating a young overweight woman patient. He had wanted to listen to her heart but didn’t want to put his ear directly against her chest, so he rolled up a tube of newspaper and bingo – the start of a new medical instrument. (“Stethos” is Greek for “chest”, and “skopein” means “to look at”.) 
  • And OMG. I was thoroughly grossed out by the discussion of human worm infestations. One rather ethically-dubious experiment concerns two criminals who had been both condemned to death in the mid-19th-century. A researcher called Friedreich Küchenmeister fed the prisoners some pig meat with worm larvae inside it, and once the men had been put to death, scientists recovered adult tapeworms from their innards, one measuring 1.5m (or about 5ft) long. Euuugh.  (One good thing about worms: they have potential to treat human illness as a form of biotherapy, but you’d have to (heavily) sedate me long-term for that procedure if the worms are alive when they’re put in me.) 
  • The word “vaccination” originates from Latin “vacca” (which means the word for “cow”). Pasteur gave the procedure that name in honor of earlier researcher, Edward Jenner (1749-1823) who came up the idea of inoculating healthy people with cowpox to give them immunity to the more virulent and fatal smallpox, a big problem at the time. 
  • Speaking of smallpox, why is it called “small” pox? Possibly to differentiate it from syphilis, another disease with pustules and called the “great pox”. 

And there is more really interesting info, naturally, in this read but I don’t want to wear out my welcome with you. (You might not be quite so taken with medical history as I am!) 🙂

So – expect Part Two in an upcoming blog post, and in case you’re not sure, I really enjoyed this particular read! 

One of the 17th-century physicians wearing the plague-avoidance outfit of the time. Not such a far remove from the mask and glove requirements of the current day. 😉