Wednesday, September 24, 2014


I’ve been reading English history circa the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII and we’ve been catching the PBS series The Roosevelts. I do love on demand. Channel 310 on Comcast showed the whole seven part series this last weekend. And maybe some folks can absorb all the information and not come out semi conscious but I’m not one of them.

And both have reminded me how lucky we are, in spite of out of control medical costs and Ebola scares, to live in this century and not the fifteenth or even the nineteenth centuries. Everybody has heard of the Black Death that wiped out up to fifty percent of Europe in the mid 1300’s. The plague reared its ugly head periodically for over three centuries. And nobody really knew how to fight it. It wasn’t until another species of rats with different flea populations displaced the black rats that were hosts to the plague bearing fleas that the epidemics stopped. That and the great fire of London in the mid 1660’s. When the city was rebuilt, it was rebuilt with stone and brick. Wider, paved streets and marginally better sanitation didn’t hurt either.

Anyone ever hear of the “sweating sickness?” The disease appeared in England in the late 1400’s. The last recorded outbreak was in the 1570’s/ In between there were irregular outbreaks that, frankly, scare the living shit out of everyone. We still don’t know exactly what the disease was. /Some scientists lean towards a hanta type virus. The symptoms included a cough, disorientation and violent chills to start with followed by a high fever and the sweating that gave the disease its name. What scared everyone was the speed the disease killed. Man, woman or child you could wake up in the morning apparently healthy and be dead before nightfall. It was extremely contagious and killed prince and peasant alike.

And here’s one you don’t hear about in this country these days; child bed fever. Henry VIII lost both his mother and one of his wives to the disease. And reading the description of the rooms Elizabeth of York retired to for her “lying in” had me wondering how she managed to avoid it earlier. Draperies and tapestries and shrouded windows.; I get claustrophobia just imagining it. Frankly I’m surprised she managed to have six children and survive. Of the six, three made it to adulthood. The seventh, nearly a month premature and weak, barely survived her mother.

Once doctors were convinced to cover their street clothes and most important, WASH THEIR DAMN HANDS, the disease practically disappeared. At least in the first world.
When Elizabeth died Henry made it through the funeral and then disappeared from public view for at least six weeks. It was assumed that he had collapsed from grief. He probably did, accompanied by a flare up of the TB that finally killed him and a set of severely infected tonsils that almost did kill him. We still have TB with us. How many of us have heard of anyone who almost died of infected tonsils in this country?

Jump ahead a few hundred years. We have letters from my great great grandmother in Kansas about the turn of the last century. It was summer and there might be small pox in the neighborhood. Theodore Roosevelt lost his mother and wife on the same day. Mother to typhoid, wife to kidney disease that flared with the birth of their first child. Also mentioned were measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria.

Ah, the age of antibiotics, improved sanitation, paved roads, sewers, septic tanks, indoor plumbing and fabrics you can wash. Hopefully the world will get a handle on the Ebola outbreak before the damn virus mutates and goes airborne. And that is a scenario that we do not want to see.

1 comment:

Lisa :-] said...

I have a theory about all these modern "deadly virus" scares. Our fear of these diseases is based upon the devastation they had wrought in an age when we didn't have nearly the number of weapons in our medical arsenal that we have today. Ebola is frightening, yes...but the reason it is an epidemic in African countries is because of a lack of modern medical facilities/procedures/personnel, and, basically, fear and superstition rampant in an uneducated population. Which is not to say ebola couldn't do some damage if it made it to our shores, but I think the threat has been hyped out of proportion by our intrepid media, and perhaps some darker forces behind it to whom it seems like a good idea to keep the public ignorant and fearful.