A Humorous (and informative) Look at Plagues: A Review of Get Well Soon


It's hard to write a humorous but yet historically and scientifically sound account of plagues that have thrown our species into calamity time and time again. Yet, Jennifer Wright does just that in Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes that Fought Them

In this easily digestible book, Wright covers topics very familiar to connoisseurs of death and destruction due to infectious diseases such as syphilis, typhoid, plague, cholera, smallpox, and tuberculosis but also ones that received comparatively less attention but are nevertheless endlessly fascinating such as Von Economo's encephalitis, the dancing plague, and a human-induced plague of lobotomies for psychiatric illness. 

Some of the most humorous aspects of the book include discussion of the exploding frog cure for plague, the pigeon cure for plague, and her unrepentant challenge of the anti-vaccine movement. One of my favorite lines, explaining herd immunity, is:

“So if enough people decide that their yoga teacher is really onto something and they are not going to immunize their kids, because they are going to feed them a whole bunch of grapes instead, then the number of immunized people drops beneath the percentage necessary for herd immunity to be effective.”

Integrated into the narratives of these episodes is not just humor but many important recommendations for how to deal with infectious disease emergencies. For example, in her account of the 1918 influenza pandemic Wright highlights the constraining effects of WWI laws in the US  prohibiting journalists from writing about anything that could diminish morale. Wright explodes the sheer insanity and backwardness of such an approach, in what I believe to be the most valuable chapter of her book. These lessons need learning as evidenced by the 2003 experience of SARS in China and the ongoing campaign to call cholera just "acute watery diarrhea" in parts of Africa.

For a great overview and uncanny insights into history's plague's I highly recommend Get Well Soon and hope that Ms. Wright continues to apply her considerable talent to these topics in the future.