For almost our entire time on Earth, humans have been prey to illness. Our responses over that long period have mostly been limited to quack medicines and folk remedies, occasionally containing grains of truth that actually helped.
Picture yourself a hundred years ago, in 1922 – rather like this dapper couple masked against Spanish Flu.
You know what causes disease – it’s no longer the miasmas of the Reformation period, nor the vapours of the 19th century, or the noxious waters of the Georgians.
It’s bacteria. Viruses. Plagues.
If you have a dececnt microscope, you can see them. Scientists have studied them. We know how they spread, and have demonstrated in real terms how to stop this spread – John Snow and the Broad Street Pump handle back in 1854.
And yet, for all that we can see what ails us, a hundred years ago it made bugger all difference.
Our medicines had been augmented by vaccination against some of the most obvious bacteria – smallpox the most egregious example. Public health measures – clean water supplies – helped limit the impact of cholera and typhus, although they managed to make off with Tchaikovsky and Prince Albert before it was done.
We could mitigate against the worst of them. But what could we actually do against them?
In a biography of Francis Walsingham I read a few years ago, I was struck by the description of how his later years were plagued by recurring infections (cause debatable) which caused him great pains and debilitation.
At the time, the treatments were almost as unpleasant as the cause. Now, you’ll get a course of antibiotics and 99% of the time you’ll be right as rain in a week.
Back in 1590s, not possible. Years of pain that surged and subsided and flared up again without warning, like a constant, nagging toothache that has no cure.
A hundred years ago, in a time of motor-cars and cinema and jazz bands, intercontinental travel and universal suffrage, we were just as helpless against those illnesses as we had been for the previous hundred thousand years.
Some of us recall parents/grandparents who were born before the widespread production of penicillin – who lived their formative years in the shadow of incurable disease, with no antibiotics or antivirals.
Not until the 1940s with the arrival of penicillin did the world begin to shake itself free of common bacterial diseases. When I wrote SHADOWBOX – set in 1832 – this was one of the things I had to remember, and I wrote about this in more detail here: No Sleep Til Medtime.
Before then, our response was Patent Medicines. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company and similar snake-oil peddlers; sanitariums and spa baths for those who could afford them, powders and hand-rolled pills made of sugar and baking soda and not much else.
Well-meaning quacks, as well as those with ulterior motives. Rival treatments whose proponents took to advertising and outrageous claims on paper in order to boost their own wares.
The drug Addiline … claimed to be a cure for consumption (tuberculosis) … in 1920. It was found to contain a large proportion of kerosene, a smaller amount of turpentine, and nothing else, except a small amount of aromatic oil.– patent medicines claimed to cure everything (etc.), Albany County Historical Society
When you had no way of treating the illness with any certainty, why not believe in gods and spirits and witchcraft to heal you? They had as much chance as herbal pills and liniment.
Recently transcribed on the Davy Notebooks Project from two hundred years ago, some notes written from the depths of an illness that left Davy bed-bound on and off while travelling through Italy. Seeded amongst the notes on electric eels and geology are short entries on days when his health was poor. Later entries – letters, for example – apologise for this.
And so, to our current situation. Read the wrong threads on social media and you end up thinking we’re all doomed, and those of us who haven’t yet had COVID are freakish outliers with no friends, living the life of a hermit on a remote rocky islet eating gull’s eggs and kelp.
Turns out that if you look at the figures with an educated eye, in the UK (at time of writing) about ten million of us haven’t had COVID in any of the preceding waves. Many of us are trying hard to keep it that way.
Still, there’s a wheen of other diseases showing their hand in the 21st Century that we thought we’d eradicated or diminished, in the developed world – monkeypox, polio, cholera. Many people RIGHT NOW also live like that, in a world where so many cures and effective treatments are available.
Don’t we have the sense we were born with? History tells us how this story ends.
We can tell new stories, or keep repeating the old one. What’s it to be?