There’s a common enough sentiment right now that we’re confronting apocalyptic times. It’s hard not to think that. After all, here in America, we currently have a commander in chief who is basically taunting other world leaders with threats of invasion, to say nothing of his ongoing insistence that climate change is a myth and that vaccines are something about which we should all be skeptical. What a time to be alive, right?
Well, if you’re looking for something to read that will simultaneously stoke and soothe your fears, look no further than Jennifer Wright’s excellent new book, Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them. In it, Wright recounts civilization’s many epic biological disasters. From leprosy to the bubonic plague and the Spanish flu to cholera, Get Well Soon acquaints readers with some of the most deadly periods in human history. And while this might sound like it makes for some pretty depressing reading, Wright manages to make the most dire of topics not only incredibly compelling but also, often, hilariously funny. As Wright proved in her last book, It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History, she has a deft hand at imbuing even the most horrific topics (like a man who traveled around America, performing lobotomies from a “lobotomobile”) into incredibly witty and smart looks at some of the stranger elements of human behavior. In fact, it’s Wright’s lucid deconstruction and cogent analyses of the troubling times about which she writes—and the frequently troubling behaviors exhibited by people of those times—that actually gives us hope for humanity on the whole. After all, if civilization has been able to recover from so many disasters in the past, and emerged into a future where there are people like Wright to illuminate the worst—and sometimes best—of our nature, then maybe things won’t be so mad in the future after all? Maybe!
We recently spoke with Wright about her new book, why it’s important to laugh during even the most tragic times, and how she thinks our new president would handle an outbreak of the plague. Read on! And try not to get too scared.
Your last book centered around the worst breakups in history. And now you have a book centered around some of the deadliest, most devastating plagues to wreak havoc upon civilization. Why so dark?
I tend to write about the things that I lie awake worrying about. For a lot of my younger life, that had to do with the fear that I was going to be broken up with continually and die alone. Slightly later in life, it was a fear of getting sick and dying, period. This book was absolutely inspired by the ebola outbreak, which I was terrified of. The only way I know how to confront those fears is to get out of bed and learn a lot about them. I especially think it’s important to learn how people have responded in the past. There are lots of topics in the world that I love that I think would make great history books—the best restaurants in history, cool outfits that changed the world—but I doubt that they’d fascinate me enough to keep me researching them relentlessly for an entire year. Only a kind of gut terror does that for me. My next book is going to be a little, illustrated book called Killer Fashion, and, as the title suggests, it’s about clothing that has killed people. I think it’s a lighter, quirky topic. I don’t worry about being murdered by my collar so much! But also, maybe your clothing is killing you. And, while I love serial killers, I’m toying with the idea of doing another long book about nuclear war and the way society responded to Hiroshima because I’m pretty worried about that in this political climate.
Despite the nature of the subject matter, your writing is, besides being clever and informative, irreverent and often laugh-out-loud funny. How do you manage to keep things witty when covering such dark periods in history?
I make jokes about these dark topics, because, when confronted with tragedies, humans make jokes. It’s a defense mechanism against fear. One of my favorite bits in the book comes from An Account of Spanish Settlements in America (1762). It concerns a Native American who is about to be burnt at the stake by Spanish settlers. They were monsters. They did this a lot. The Spaniards urged him to accept Christ before being burnt so he could go to heaven, not hell. The Native American replied, “Are there any Spaniards in heaven?” The Spaniards told them there were a great many. He replied that, in that case, he’d prefer to go to the other place. People make jokes before they are literally set on fire. The only people who are detached enough to not make jokes are history professors living hundreds of years in the future. I tend to find taking a sterile, academic tone about matters of life and death unforgivably inhuman. These are things that should happen to us, and they should scare us, and disgust us, and sometimes make us laugh.
Do you have any favorite plagues? Is that like asking which of your children you prefer? Only weirder, because we’re talking deadly diseases?
It’s definitely weirder, and it’s lobotomies! There’s a chapter on them that, okay, does not really belong in the book, because it’s a plague produced by man. But I couldn’t resist telling everyone about how Walter Jackson Freeman II drove across the country in a “lobotomobile,” performing lobotomies on people. Those people included some who had decided they did not want them. It’s such a uniquely horrifying chapter of American history. Freeman was a raging, publicity hungry narcissist who promised that his lobotomies would cure everything—from depression to alcohol addiction to headaches—even when it became very clear that the side effects outweighed the benefits. He claimed one of his patients had the “personality of an oyster” post-operation, and many could not remember his name. It’s a bit of a lesson that, if someone is promising you something that sounds good—like, oh, say, they’re going to “make America great again”—you should look very, very closely at how they’re going to do that and what the downsides might be. As well as whether the person making those promises is a raging, publicity hungry narcissist.
In times of epic disaster, what separates the heroes from everybody else?
They’re full of compassion, and they’re unafraid. Perhaps being compassionate makes them unafraid. There’s a story that Nostradamus was inspired to fight the bubonic plague when he saw a woman dying of the plague knitting her shroud. By the time he had run to her, she was dead. I think it’s amazing that he ran to her, and not away from her as fast as possible. Nostradamus went on to introduce hygiene concepts that were thought to have saved a whole town of people. When Father Damien went to work with the lepers, he was instructed to never, ever, touch them. When he got to the island, he saw that children’s bandages went so untended that they were not only dying of leprosy, they also had worms crawling in their wounds. He began changing their bandages himself, by hand. Though he eventually did contract leprosy and die of the disease, he first managed to transform the island into a peaceful place and raise awareness regarding the plight of the lepers. As someone who is so afraid of so much, I’m in awe of these men and women who can stare death in the face and say, “I’m going to be a good person in spite of you.”
Who were some of the historic figures who you wrote about that you most admire?
One who I’m especially fascinated by is Marcus Aurelius. During his reign, from 161 to 180 [AD], Rome was devastated by the Antonine Plague. It’s thought to be smallpox today, and, at its height, it killed thousands of people. This had terrible ramifications in every regard. Not least among those ramifications was the fact that it decimated the army, making it easier for Germanic tribes to cross the borders. Given that this occurred in a time before any cure could even be hoped for, most people handled the plague terribly. Roman citizens alternated between patronizing charlatans who promised witchcraft could cure them and blaming the disease on the Christians. Christians did not, contrary to the Roman claims, invent smallpox. It would have been very easy for a ruler to give in to terror and superstitions. Plenty of future rulers did! But Marcus Aurelius handled everything with the utmost calm. He passed legislation to subsidize the costs of funerals so the people wouldn’t leave their dead in the streets. He conscripted gladiators into the army. When the army needed more money to pay the new recruits, he sold off his own imperial possessions to raise the funds. His successor did not do such a great job. There’s a thought that if Marcus Aurelius had lived longer—he most likely died of the Antonine Plague—the Roman Empire might not have slipped into decline. Remaining calm in the face of disaster for which there can be no cure is a really impressive trait.
Franklin D. Roosevelt is another person who did amazing things to combat polio. He was stricken by the disease himself at 39 and was mostly wheelchair bound. He became president in 1933, at a time when many Americans still believed “the world has no place for a cripple.” Thousands of children who’d been stricken by polio, and their parents, wrote to him. He took the time to answer their letters, reassuring them that they were very brave and fighting a wonderful fight. He gave permission for “birthday balls” to be held across the country on his birthday, with all the funds going toward fighting polio. When some Republicans replied that they’d be willing to donate to fight polio “on any day but Roosevelt’s birthday,” he founded the nonpartisan National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938. Seven million Americans would volunteer to help that foundation before polio was cured, more than any have for any cause that was not a war effort. In 1947, the NFIP would fund the lab in which Jonas Salk would go on to cure polio in 1955. In 20 years, polio went from being a disease that was seen as showing, to some degree, weak moral character to a disease that all of America was united against. That has a lot to do with FDR and the way he brought the disease into the light.
Who are history’s straight-up villains when it comes to dealing with plagues?
Walter Freeman Jackson II who pioneered the lobotomy is definitely the biggest villain as far as I’m concerned, but Ronald Reagan was up there! If you want to look at a recent disease that was wildly mishandled, you need look no farther than the AIDS crisis. When a journalist first mentioned it at a press conference in 1982, his administration refused to take the question seriously, asking the reporter whether or not he had it. Making diseases something to be ashamed of is a really bad way to go if you don’t want people to hide them and end up spreading them to more people. Reagan himself wouldn’t even mention AIDS until 1985, by which time it was killing thousands of Americans a year, including Reagan’s personal friend, Rock Hudson! And then he slashed the federal funding for it by 11 percent in 1986. Maybe AIDS was unstoppable at that point, but I can’t help but believe that a man known as “the great communicator” speaking out about it earlier could have raised awareness and saved at least some lives.
In your introduction, you write: “The past was no less ridiculous than the present. Both eras were made up of humans.” It’s a sentiment I find reassuring in these troubling political times, but then I start to think about what it would be like were Trump to still be president when a plague descended upon the U.S. and I start to panic all over again. How do you think Trump would be equipped to handle a disaster of that magnitude?
Oh. Um. Well. I am trying not to be too scary in my response. Certainly, from a scientific standpoint, we’re better equipped to handle a plague than we ever have been before. Medicine in the developed world is nothing short of miraculous. Just having basics, like clean, running water, puts us at a real advantage. We’re so much better off than we were 700 years ago! We’re still so much better off than much of the world is today. That said, if we had, say, a flu outbreak similar to the one that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in 1918, which is to say, something that spreads extremely quickly that we, to this day, do not know how to combat… I think we would not fare well. The trait that seems to most benefit rulers in times of plague is an ability to remain extremely calm. Trump can’t remain calm when SNL says something mean about him. A ruler also has to be able to think about every piece of legislation that could benefit people, as Marcus Aurelius did. Being a policy wonk isn’t really sexy or fun, but it’s really important when things go wrong. Trump doesn’t seem to be a man who is big on minutiae. And, more than anything, he has to remind society that the people afflicted do not somehow have the disease coming to them. Because during plagues, people love to think that sick people are somehow morally corrupt. It means that they don’t have to do anything to help them, and they don’t have to empathize with the horrible amount of death around them. I think Trump’s frequent comments about how extremely healthy he is seem to indicate that he thinks that health is somehow connected to moral fiber, which, of course, it’s not. Thinking that way, or standing by and allowing others to think that way, is what allowed the AIDS crisis to blossom so wildly out of control. Ideally, a president would be able to put himself in the shoes of the afflicted—which, admittedly, FDR had no choice but to do, but which other people could do by being empathetic humans—and it seems like Trump doesn’t really like reaching out to anyone who he doesn’t see as a real “winner.” So, yeah, if Trump is president when a disease breaks out, I suspect way more people would die than would with a more rational president. So, let’s all hope that does not happen any time in the next four years.
Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them is available for purchase now!