Hillsdale physician does detective work into past mass outbreaks
Newly released books are often praised for being "timely." Most often they are designed to be just that
Not so with a book that Hillsdale's Dr. Gregg Coodley is researching and writing. By happenstance, it's working title seems crafted for today even though its focus is on the past: "Torment: The worst infections in the history of the United States."
Coodley began researching and writing "Torment" last September, months before the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic. The founder of the Fanno Creek Clinic in Hillsdale, Coodley was drawn to the subject of infectious diseases and their historical impact by his decades-long work with HIV patients.
The subject of "Torment" also fit with a broader interest in topics that he said "others don't write about." Now, of course, COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, dominates the media. Still, the question of what its lasting impact might be is lost in the immediacy of massive day-to-day media coverage. That's where Coodley's historical perspective can fill the gap left by what others "don't write about."
To answer the question of how the coronavirus experience might change our history and our society, Coodley turned immediately for guidance to examples from American history. He started by noting that both Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were infected with smallpox. Lincoln showed signs of the disease just before he delivered the Gettysburg address. Had the disease progressed faster, he would never have delivered the iconic speech. As it turned out, Lincoln had a relatively mild form of the disease, but one of his close aides contracted it and died.
As a young man, Washington had been stricken with smallpox, and as a result became immune to it later. But his experience led him to order that all Continental Army recruits be inoculated as the colonies were in the throes of twin dangers: military defeat and the smallpox epidemic of 1775-82. Smallpox killed more American soldiers and civilians than the British did, but many believe Washington's inoculation order may have eventually allowed his troops to be restored to full strength.
Napoleon's selling of the vast "Louisiana Purchase" territory in 1803 resulted, in part, from the French experience with yellow fever in fighting the slave rebellions in Haiti, then a French colony. Coodley notes that one of the reasons Africans were enslaved and brought to the Caribbean and the South was the genetic resistance to malaria that was common in Africa.
Malaria, which is carried by mosquitos in warm, moist climates, drove many vulnerable Europeans to the colder regions of North America. Canada is separate from the United States today in part because smallpox so weakened the American Continental Army that it lost the 1775 Battle of Quebec against the British.
Some responses to epidemics seem laughable today. When Yellow Fever struck New Orleans in 1849, the antidote was to fire cannons to "frighten" it off and to set fires to create "bad air." Religion, often a handy crutch, was turned to as an explanation for plagues, which were seen as punishments from God. In one bizarre twist, when penicillin was discovered and used to fight syphilis, many among the concerned righteous rejected the drug, arguing that if the disease were no longer a danger, promiscuity and sin would prevail.
There are more than enough incidents and anecdotes to keep the good doctor busy doing research. But what does his research about the past tell us about the present and the future regarding our current pandemic? In a way, our population will be stronger if this virus stiffens our resistance to it in the future, he said.
When Europeans came here with diseases they had built a resistance to, vulnerable native peoples fell prey to diseases they had never before encountered.
"What makes you weaker in the short run, makes you stronger in the long run," Coodley said.
But just how short might the "short run" be? That depends on when coronavirus runs out of people to infect, he said. Quarantines, an age-old remedy, isolate the disease. Because many today have the technology to work and study at home, we may be better suited to quarantining ourselves.
On the downside, transportation technology has collapsed the time it takes for disease to spread. It could be that the coronavirus will wane with the warmth of summer, Coodley said. Then again, the pandemic flu of 1918, which killed more people than did the contemporaneous "pestilence" of the First World War, tapered off in the summer only to revive with a vengeance in the winter.
Finally, there's the hope of a vaccine that will put an end to it until the next epidemic comes along. Perhaps the lessons of this one will help us better respond to the next. One thing is certain: there will be a next one.
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