Get Well Soon | Jennifer Wright

Summary of: Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them
By: Jennifer Wright


Embark on a captivating journey through history as we uncover the most devastating plagues and uncover the heroes who fought against them in Jennifer Wright’s ‘Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them’. In this compelling summary, you’ll explore a range of outbreaks from the strange dancing mania in Strasbourg to the mysterious and deadly Spanish Flu. Discover the truths, misconceptions, and oftentimes peculiar preventative measures that individuals and societies took to battle these diseases. Through the lens of these past battles, be inspired by the resilience and compassion of heroes who rose to confront these overwhelming plagues and marvel at the scientific discoveries that brought relief to humanity.

The Mysterious Dancing Plague

In sixteenth-century Europe, amidst plagues and hardships, a bizarre phenomenon occurred – the “dancing plague.” In Strasbourg, 1518, a woman inexplicably began dancing in the street, collapsing from exhaustion only to resume once awakened. Others joined her, and soon, a collective delirium ensued. People danced until their feet bled and bones ruptured, causing at least 15 deaths daily due to heart failure, dehydration, or infected wounds. The afflicted townsfolk believed it was divine punishment and initially sought to appease God by banning gambling and prostitution. Their efforts proved fruitless as the dancing continued. In desperation, the townspeople turned to Saint Vitus, the patron saint of dancers, theorizing he was behind the strange events. They traveled to his shrine, anointed symbolic red shoes with holy oil, and donned them in hopes of a miracle. Amazingly, it seemed to work – the dancing stopped, and life resumed to normal. However, it is likely that the community’s care and concern, rather than the supernatural, provided the essential healing power.

Mysteries of Medieval Plague Treatments

The fear of Alzheimer’s occasionally drives the author to click on ads claiming to have a cure, despite knowing it’s untrue. This behavior resembles how medieval Europeans sought various bizarre treatments for the bubonic plague. The disease, caused by rat fleas, killed around 30% of the population in the fourteenth century, and people had no idea about its origin. As a result, misguided remedies such as living in sewers, eating more vegetables based on unsound logic, and avoiding baths were popular. However, not all suggested treatments were absurd; physician Nostradamus advised regular washing of body and clothes to reduce contagion, which was indeed helpful in controlling flea infestations. Unfortunately, the majority in the middle ages believed that bathing increased the risk of disease, leading to poor hygiene practices.

Smallpox: The Civilization Destroyer

In the 1500s, smallpox devastated entire civilizations in the Americas, including the Incas, whose empire was later easily conquered by the Spaniards. The virus struck terror, causing agonizing deaths by tricking the immune system into attacking the body’s organs. Smallpox had a catastrophic impact on the indigenous American population, eventually killing around 90% of them due to their lack of immunity. Fortunately, the development of a smallpox vaccine in the eighteenth century led to its eradication by the end of the twentieth century, thanks to Edward Jenner’s observation of immunity among milkmaids.

During the same time that Shakespeare penned his masterpieces, a terrifying disease emerged, wreaking havoc throughout the American continent and decimating nearly all existing civilizations. This devastating virus was smallpox, which manifested as pus-filled sores that caused the immune system to attack its host’s organs and led to excruciatingly painful deaths.

In 1525, a single infected Spaniard is believed to have introduced smallpox to the Incan civilization. The consequences were catastrophic; within a year, the 7,000-year-old society ruling over an area comparable to Italy and Spain combined crumbled. This made it easy for Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro to conquer the Incan empire with just 168 men, even though the Incas had an 80,000-strong army.

The Spaniards had some immunity to smallpox, having already been exposed to the virus in Europe. However, indigenous Americans lacked this immunity, and the virus ultimately claimed the lives of 90% of the native population.

Thankfully, the eighteenth century saw the development of the smallpox vaccine, spurred by the observations of Edward Jenner, an English physician. He noticed that milkmaids seemed to be immune to smallpox after being exposed to the less severe cowpox virus from cattle. This realization led to the creation of the smallpox vaccine using the cowpox virus, marking a turning point in medical history. The vaccine’s widespread success contributed to the eventual eradication of smallpox by the close of the twentieth century, bringing an end to the era of this fearsome disease.

Leprosy’s Impact and Compassion

Losing your sense of touch might seem like a mild inconvenience, but for those suffering from leprosy, it can be disastrous and life-altering. Leprosy, a bacterial disease, causes nerve signals to be blocked from affected areas, leading to a loss of sensation. This numbness can result in unnoticed injuries, infections, and eventual appendage loss. Throughout history, leprosy sufferers have faced stigmatization and ostracization, such as the forced quarantine of lepers in Hawaii in 1856. Father Damien, a Belgian priest, bravely moved to the island of Molokai to provide care for the leper community. Despite the risk to his own health, Father Damien’s compassion improved the lives of those affected by the disease. Although he eventually succumbed to leprosy himself, his kindness played a crucial role in reducing the stigma surrounding the illness.

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