I don’t know you personally, and for that I am extremely grateful. Obviously I’ve heard of you; after all, what historian worth their salt hasn’t devoted some time to studying the great plagues and epidemics of the past? I must confess, however, I had a dismal regard for your power to infiltrate, terrify, and decimate entire cities. I had considered you a distant cousin to y pesits; I now realize that you are brothers in arms.
What changed my mind, you ask? Author/historian Steven Johnson’s work The Ghost Map. Now, I must confess that Mr. Johnson’s writing leaves something to be desired. His redundancy reminds me of students padding a term paper. His asides and personal vendettas add little to the narrative. He berates historical ideas of science and medicine for not knowing better, only briefly pausing to consider they had no reason to know better. They were ignorant, not stupid. And yet, Mr. Johnson, while making the same claim, treats our forebears as stupid.
Nevertheless, once the chaff is removed the kernels of knowledge remain. In reading of the London plagues that led to understanding you, I have developed a new respect. No longer will I confuse you with dysentery. To call you dysentery would be akin to calling anaphylaxis “an allergy.” I had long known alcohol was safer than water for much of human civilization, now I know you were the reason why. You struck with apparent impunity and malignancy, infiltrating and poisoning seemingly healthy water. The master of disguise, many blamed bad air or meteorological catastrophes for your appearance. Despite our best efforts, you continued to plague our great cities well into the nineteenth century.
And still you remain. Africa and the East and South America – where sanitation and hygiene are poor or nonexistent – know you all too well. We see our politicians and entertainers “bring awareness” to AIDS and cancer and illiteracy and women’s rights. Where are the spokesmen for cholera? It baffles me that something so basic as “don’t drink where you crap” needs to be taught; and yet it must. Where is the outrage? Where are the PSAs? Where are the contribution campaigns?
I hope that one day the only way anyone will hear of you is in a history book.
This post is being published as part of Writing 101. Challenge 14: Pick up the nearest book and flip to page 29. What jumps out at you? Start there, and write in the form of a letter.