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. 😉

Reading Catchup

I’ve been reading quite a bit since the COVID thing started (although not as much as I had anticipated seeing as I have all this time available), but the pace is picking up (in between jigsaws!), and I’m planning on reading more now that school is finished and the grades are in. Phew. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve read a mix of books, a couple of them really excellent and one just meh, but all of them off the TBR. (Go me.)

The “just meh” one was “Home Life One”, the first of four volumes and a collection of newspaper columns from an English journo (?) named Alice Thomas Ellis. (See top pic.) She wrote columns on domestic life, I suppose you’d call it, and they were published in The Spectator, a British magazine that runs conservative (I think). 

I must have read someone somewhere online praising these offerings and rushed out to order it, but the columns didn’t seem to hit the same high notes for me. I think some of this was because I just worked my way through the collection, one after the other, and I now doubt the wisdom of reading the book that way since it all got pretty same-y after a while. Maybe I should remember that next time I choose a similar book. The content was also a little dated (but that’s hardly the author’s fault!) Moving on…

The good reads: a Canadian novel called “Birdie” by Tracey Lindberg (2015). Selected as a 2016 CANADA READS title, I picked this book up on a trip to Vancouver last year as one written by an aboriginal native author. This was a really good read, although it covers some heavy-duty topics as part of the plot: sexual abuse, mental illness, native rights… 

Kudos to the author, though, as this book reads smoothly and although the characters (one in particular) undergoes some hellish experiences, it’s written in a manner that it’s not too much for you as a reader (although it might be triggering for some people). Good book; off the TBR; native author about native characters: win-win-win. 

(Plus – look at the fantastic artwork on the cover: It’s a detail from Modern Girl, Traditional Mind Set by George Littlechild (2010), an author/artist of the Cree Nation, same as Lindberg.)

The other excellent read was just a cheapie bargain book from the sales shelves at B&N (when it was open), but despite the price, it was soooo good (if you like this sort of thing). I’m going to do a more thorough review in the next few days as I’d like to chat about it more in-depth, but suffice to say, I loved it. Stay tuned.

And then a good friend of mine happened to ask me to be an early reader for her second novel – which I loved. If anyone is an agent (or knows one), please let me know. I’d love to hook my writing friend up with someone who knows what they’re doing in the publishing world. Other people need to read her work – it’s good!!

And naturally – jigsaws! 😃

The Best American Travel Writing 2001 – Paul Theroux (editor)

Travel writing at its best… relates a journey of discovery that is frequently risky and sometimes grim and often pure horror, with a happy ending: to hell and back. The traveler ends up at home and seizes your wrist with his skinny hand and holds you with his glittering eye and relates his spellbinding tale.”  

Paul Theroux, Introduction.

Seeing as we have been rather stuck at home, I thought that now would be a really good time to read some travel writing and, having had some success with this series in the past, found an old volume on the old TBR shelves. I did have some hesitation seeing the editor was Paul Theroux (only because I’ve heard of his reputation as a rather grumpy writer), but pulled it down nevertheless, primarily because it was what I had. 🙂

In actuality, despite my initial reservations, this turned out to be a really good read. As with any kind of writing collection chosen by whoever is the editor, there are going to be hits and misses but this compilation was mostly hits, which made it fun to read. 

(The only slightly eye-wincing moment was when I saw that Paul Theroux’s eldest son, Marcel, was also selected as part of this collection of American Travel Writing. One, the optics don’t look that great for a father to choose his own son’s writing for inclusion in a project such as this, and is M.T.’s writing so much more superior than anyone else’s who was up for submission? Oh, and the gender split of authors was a bit eye-watering. This then leads on to related question: how many of these selectees are POC?) :-/

Looking through the index, the selected writing travels far and wide: from Siberia to the U.S. and parts in between, the quality of writing and its content was enjoyable. In fact, it was a really good read overall and actually hit the sweet spot for reading in a pandemic. Plus it fit really well with my COVID reading style which seems to be rather a scattershot approach at the moment. Plus it was a TBR.

Excellent writing came from Peter Hessler (who I adore anyway), Susan Orleans, and 24 other authors, with a gender break-up of five female authors (and 19 males). Grumble, grouse, but this lack of gender balance is a common characteristic for these editions (especially when they are edited by males). Is it really so hard to find someone who is a strong writer and is not a typical white male? Hmm. 

Moving on… The majority of these reads did exactly what they said on the tin: excellent writing combined with strong descriptions and interesting narratives of places off the beaten track. 

Despite its weaknesses (see above), I actually really enjoyed this volume and have just realized that I haven’t bought the 2019 volume just yet (edited by Alexandra Fuller – Hey! A woman slipped into the mix. I’m a bit behind with the book-buying.) This year’s volume (2020) will be edited by Robert McFarlane, another white male Oxbridge fellow, I see (with gritted teeth)…

Still, fingers are crossed to a more balanced gender breakdown inside both of these…

In the end, I am happy to have read this volume and able to travel outside my home, even if it was only in my mind. Along those same lines, I did just go to the grocery store, which counts as adventurous travel in this day and age. 🙂

Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (2017)

Having picked this up as part of February’s Black History Month (and an ongoing focus on reading AOC* and related topics), I found this to be a really fascinating read about a notable woman who I have not heard of before: journalist Ethel Payne, one of the first African-American female reporters in the U.S. and the first in the White House for several presidents.

Born in 1911 on the south side of Chicago, Payne grew up in a family whose roots were in slavery until the end of the Civil War. Her father worked as a Pullman porter (which meant days away from home) and her mother looked after Payne and her siblings. She was a voracious reader with a Latin teacher mother so education was important in her family. (I can only wonder how many African-American female Latin teachers there were in the U.S. at this time. Not many, I would wager.)

At the start of Payne’s career and wanting to travel further afield, she was adventurous enough to apply (and get accepted) to work in Japan for the Army Special Services Club where she would act as a host at the social club on the base for their servicemen. In 1950, when the Korean War began, she took notes in her journal about the segregated treatment of African-American soldiers. The U.S. Army had been ordered by the President (Truman) to be desegregated but General McCarthy refused. (Grr.) This led, of course, to ongoing social problems, including the issue of AfAm (and others, of course) soldiers having relationships with the local women, whose babies ended up being abandoned by their Japanese mothers. (Culturally, the Japanese were not welcoming of other races or mixed-race children.)

As part of Payne’s social duties, she met another African-American reporter who was in Japan representing the newspaper, The Chicago Defender, a newspaper focused on the large African-American population in Chicago. He handed copies of her notes to his editor stateside, and they ended up being published as a series of articles in the Defender. This was the start of her journalism career.

African-American newspapers were described as “the most predominant media influence on black people… they were our Internet.” (Vernon Jarrett.)

Ethel Payne, pioneering journalist.

Payne was quite a fearless reporter and refused to back down from difficult issues. She covered African-American adoptions and single mothers; she covered the McCarthy trials, and she was assigned to stay on in Washington as the newspaper’s on-the-ground reporter to cover politics. Payne also was accepted to the elite White House Press Corps, the first woman and the first African-American woman to reach their level of access, and she became known for asking tough questions to the presidents of the day, especially those addressing civil rights and other tricky issues (even if it annoyed the politicians).

She was on the front lines for so many huge civil-rights events for the U.S., one, for example, was the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education case about desegregating schools and in fact, Nixon was so irritated with a question that Payne asked him about this that he refused to answer any of her questions for the remainder of his political term.

Additionally, she was sent abroad for several sentinel events, including the Vietnam War and on several Presidential trips to the African continent (again, as the only African-American female journalist). She must have had some lonely moments.

However, as much as her coverage excelled, her editors were not always supportive of her efforts and there were a couple of missteps on her part. However, her legacy as one of the leading lights in journalism during the Civil Rights era remains untarnished and although she is not a household name in the news-reporting world, she should be (and probably would be if she wasn’t an African-American).

This was an amazing story about a woman who refused to back down, both professionally and personally, and in doing so, made her mark in the journalism field. She died in 1991.

(Asterick refers to Authors-of-color, not U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York City. :-))

(Above) Payne confers with then-Vice-President Richard Nixon (when he was still speaking with her ref: above parag.). (NYT.)

The Family Next Door – John Glatt (2019)

Subtitle: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and their Extraordinary Rescue. (Cue: longest subtitle in the world.)

From the publisher:

On January 14, 2018, a 17-year old girl climbed out of the window of her Perris, Calif., home and dialed 911 with shaking fingers. Struggling to stay calm, she told the operator that she and her 12 siblings – ranging in age from two to 29 – were being abused by their parents. When the dispatcher asked for her address, the girl hesitated. “I’ve never been out,” she stammered.

To their family, neighbors and online friends, Louise and David Turpin presented a picture of domestic bliss: dressing their 13 children in matching outfits and buying them expensive gifts. But what police discovered when they entered the Turpin home would eclipse the most shocking child abuse cases in history.

This wasn’t an easy read (in terms of the topic) but it was a quick read (in terms of how much time it took to actually turn the pages). The topic of this severe ongoing child abuse was so tough for me (because the parents were so very horrible), in fact, that there were several times that I nearly put down the book unfinished, and this would have been a shame on several levels.

I really finished it because I felt that I owed the book’s subjects, the Turpin family siblings, that I should finish it as a way of supporting them. (And I don’t have any child abuse in my family or anything and yet it was still a wickedly hard read to complete.)

If you’re not familiar with the case, this is basically a fairly straightforward recounting of the Turpin family, made up of a truly terrible mother and father and their thirteen poor children. The parents created a cult of sorts within the house which enabled the two adults to seriously abuse all thirteen of the kids every day of their lives, from ages newborn to late twenties. How did this happen? Why didn’t the older children run away when they could? Why did no one know this was going on?

Written by true-crime reporter John Glatt, this is a pretty well researched story that covers just how the Turpin parents managed to keep such tight control over their growing brood of kids – and yet no one (not a family member, not a neighbor, no one) noticed (or alerted authorities). The parents kept everything awful happening only within the house by keeping their children inside under lock and key (and sometimes chained to the bed for hours, days and weeks at a time).

Glatt goes into the background and history of the family, and, as is typically the case in situations like these, it’s related to the development of a cult-like situation, to a twisting and manipulation by those with power, and a testament to the ripples that can occur through generations of truly awful parenting.

The Turpin parents would not just abuse all these kids, but also do things that would amount to torture for children.

The Turpin kids (faces blocked out).

For example, the children were never given enough food or drink (leading to developmental delays) but the mother would buy a fruit pie and leave it on the kitchen counter in full display of these hungry kids. However, no one would be allowed to actually eat the pie and so, despite being really hungry, the family would have to watch the pie gradually rot in its own plate.

At Christmas, the parents would buy loads of expensive presents but again, the kids were not actually allowed to touch or use the presents. For example, one Christmas, each of the 13 siblings was bought a new outside bike to play with but the bikes were kept outside (but in front of the house windows), for years, rusting under an overhanging shelter with the tags still on them whilst the kids were imprisoned inside.

Education was another thing withheld. Some of the younger siblings (including young teenagers) were not taught the whole of the alphabet, despite the home being officially registered as a home school with the state. It’s this never-ending litany of awful things that almost made me put the book down, but I felt a responsibility to the Turpin siblings to finish it out.

There were two frustrating things with how the book was written, however. First was that Glatt, as a journalistic reporter, relies far too much on just one mental health/child abuse expert and only refers to this one source throughout the entire book. Additionally, this was also a mental health expert who hadn’t even met the family and so was entirely removed from the true story. What? You could only find ONE expert to talk about this story with all its twists and turns? No other sources out there who could, perhaps, address the world of religious cults, of child abuse, of family relationships…? Hmm. So that struck me as just being very lazy on the part of the author.

Second, there wasn’t that much information to finish off the story so it was a little dissatisfactory from a reader’s perspective. I can understand why – the Turpin siblings are off living their lives as best they can with new names and new environments – but it was still frustrating as a reader to not know a few more details, so the book ended rather suddenly for me.

I don’t know that it could have ended any other way, to be honest, but after all the detail in the first three-quarters of the book, the recounting of the court case seemed repetitive and superficial. But then that goes back to protecting the anonymity of the remaining Turpin siblings and their new lives. We don’t learn any further details about them, but I can completely understand the why and I only hope that they are thriving with support.