Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic That Remains One of Medicine's Greatest Mysteries

Free Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic That Remains One of Medicine's Greatest Mysteries by Molly Caldwell Crosby

Book: Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic That Remains One of Medicine's Greatest Mysteries by Molly Caldwell Crosby Read Free Book Online
Authors: Molly Caldwell Crosby
Tags: science, nonfiction, History, medicine, Diseases & Physical Ailments, Biology
Epidemic encephalitis would give neurology its chance to join the current. The organized and well-run public health offices were thus able to supply the Neurological Institute with an epidemiological gold mine—patient records, statistics, outbreaks. There could not be a better system for investigating an outbreak of disease than to have all of those separate pieces working together. The health department went into the neighborhoods and recorded cases; the public health laboratories diagnosed cases and studied tissue samples; the New York Academy of Medicine provided an endless source of articles published throughout the world; and the Neurological Institute had the funding, space, and talent to conduct brain studies. Certainly, with that kind of combined effort, doctors hoped the mystery of this disease could be solved in the coming decade.
    Sigmund Freud wrote in his book Mass Psychology that “One of the few pleasing and uplifting impressions furnished by the human race is when, faced with an elemental disaster, it forgets its cultural muddle-headedness and all its internal problems and enmities and recalls the great common task of preserving itself against the superior might of nature.”

    New York City, 1922-27
NAME: Adam
PHYSICIAN: Dr. S. E. Jelliffe

    I was Easter break in 1922, in mid-April, when Adam left his preparatory school for home. As he traveled on the train through upstate New York, spring was emerging from winter’s icy grip. The green shoots of daffodils speared through the dead underbrush. Buds, tiny and jewel-toned, appeared almost miraculously along the gangly branches of cherry trees and dogwoods. And vivid yellow bloomed along the bowing arcs of forsythia branches. Though it happened without fail every year, it always seemed a surprise to see the first trace of life after the long, dead winter.
    For Adam, the images of spring were blurred. He shivered with fever and peered through the train window with red, tired eyes. Gusts of wind blew through the window cracks when the train rattled across a rough patch of track. Each breath of air felt like gravel in his throat—burning, raw, and painful. He was glad to have the chance to go home and rest.
    Adam’s mother put him in his bed, his childhood bed, and he curled up still feeling feverish and very depressed. The family doctor diagnosed a light case of the flu and told his mother that he should be fine after a few days in bed. The doctor recommended an alkaline gargle for the boy to use every few hours and left a prescription for a cough compound that contained codeine—it would help with the pain and allow the boy to sleep better. The family had no reason to assume it was anything worse than a case of the flu.
    The next morning, a little after nine, Adam’s older brother, a reporter who worked for a New York daily and still lived at home, came into the room to check on Adam. The room was dark as he cracked the door open and looked at the motionless shape beneath the blankets.
    “Get out and let me alone! Let me rest. I had an awful night,” Adam shouted.
    The brother pulled the door shut, a little surprised by his brother’s angry outburst. It seemed out of character.
    Later that afternoon, Adam got out of bed and started to wash and shave. His brother watched him through the open door and later remarked that it was obvious something had happened—Adam twitched and jerked and acted as though he labored under some tremendous excitement that he could not control. He was not the same boy who had climbed off the train platform, feverish, depressed, and tired.
    Adam was shouting and laughing in the bathroom, singing to himself. When he noticed his brother standing in the doorway, he grinned and shouted, “Wow! I like my liquor strong and my women weak.”
    Adam’s eyes were bright, and his hands moved spastically for his comb and razor. His teeth chattered uncontrollably, and he shook all over. Adam’s brother

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