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Get well soon : history's worst plagues and the heroes who fought them

A book of the worst plagues in history could be a nightmare-inducing slog through dark times. Everything, from the suffering of victims to the ‘treatments’ they endured, piles on misery. It would take a deft hand to write about the bubonic plague, or smallpox, or leprosy  in a way that neither sinks into despair, nor loses sight of the humanity shared by readers, sufferers, doctors, and the desperate communities trying to outlast the catastrophe.

Luckily, Jennifer Wright writes with just such a deft hand! She mixes a gruesome medical history with a humorous, sympathetic perspective to discover how people face times of overwhelming, catastrophic illness.   

For example, when writing about the Black Death, Wright shares the “exploding frog cure”. The exploding frog cure involved strapping a live frog to a plague sufferer’s bubo (the swollen lymph node that is a symptom of the bubonic plague) until the frog swelled and exploded, then repeating that procedure again with more frogs. Sometimes pigeons, chickens, and hens were also also used. Write writes, “I have a sense that people were just randomly applying any household creature they could catch to the afflicted’s wounds”.

She contrasts the exploding frog treatment with the remarkably less showy treatment favored by Nostradamus. Nostradamus, who worked as an apothecary before settling down to write a book of prophecies, is one of Wright’s plague fighting heros. His plague treatment suggestions included getting corpses out of the street, removing soiled linens, drinking boiled water, bathing, and getting fresh air. None of these practices is a cure for the plague, but they beat strapping a live frog to your armpit.

By showing both the “wacky” medical procedures and the sincere efforts of people fighting plagues, Wright earns her breezy tone despite her dark topic. Yes, she seems to be saying, it is funny that people tried strapping live frogs to the sick, but they also tried community action and care. Many of the people Wright researched risked their lives ministering to the sick. We can only hope that when the next plague hits us it will be met with the kind of grace and resolve displayed by Nostradamus, Jon Snow, or Father Damien of Molokai.