Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, by Jennifer Wright

I was surprised at what a fun book this was to read. Jennifer Wright has filled the book with both information and witty asides. Not that everything is easy to take. There’s the No Nose Club, founded in London to attempt to overcome one of the shocking side effects of syphilis. Or there’s the bishop asked to bless a river in order to turn it into holy ground for the many plague corpses tossed in, turning the river blue with bodies.

Then again, what do you expect in a book that covers some of the worst disease (and a few hysteric) epidemics in history. For hysteric plagues we get the Dancing Plague, which … plagued … a town in Alsace in the 16th century. There are well known maladies like the black death that killed a high percentage of Europe over several centuries, or the flu that took more soldiers in WWI than bullets then traveled home to infect and kill thousands in the US.

But as Wright notes, we tend to forget plagues after they disappear. No one worries about swimming in a public pool and picking up polio, despite some people like Sen. Mitch McConnell being alive and “post polio” from one of the horrifying diseases from the middle of the 20th century. Thank you, Jonas Salk.

Wright covers diseases from early history, some cured by early physician Galen, and a Roman plague that was managed by Emperor Marcus Aurelius by helping to distribute food to the ill. Compare that to Ronald Reagan who hadn’t even mentioned AIDS through his entire presidency as it continued to spread worldwide.

Along with these she gives us the story of Typhoid Mary (the best summary I’ve read), the Spanish gift of smallpox to native Americans, and chasing down a source of cholera in Victorian London (one of the first examples of epidemiology).

It’s an interesting book. Better yet it can be laugh-out-loud funny. Wright could be a model for popular science writing for any college writing course. She also humanizes history, showing that history happens to people, the ones who suffer and die from ignorance and mistakes. She does a wonderful job of pointing out the real lessons of history in the public management of diseases and heaps credit on those who did it right.