12 August 2011


Molly Caldwell Crosby. Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of History's Greatest Mysteries. Berkeley Books, 2011.

If you were to ask citizens of the United States what was the very worst thing that had happened in their country since the Civil War, I would suspect that at least 90% would say 9/11. Sadly they wouldn't even be close; like the rest of the world their country was torn by two terrible epidemics which swept the world in the wake of the Great War.
The first of these, the super-killer, the Great Influenza pandemic, was a global disaster on a scale which beggars the imagination. Conservative estimates put the death toll at 20 million, other estimates suggested double that figure, the latest estimate is a staggering 100 million. It is thought 300,000 people died in New York alone in just one year 1919.

The influenza came and went, you lived or you died, the next pandemic was much smaller in numbers, perhaps a million victims world-wide, but it left a trail of devastation which would outlast the century. It is this disease 'encephalitis lethargica', alias Von Economos's Disease, alias 'the sleepy sickness' which is the subject of this book.

The popular name 'sleepy sickness' gave a good clue as to one of the main features of the disease: long periods of unrousable sleep, or something like sleep, which went on and on. For others the disease had the opposite effect, for it produced long periods of sleeplessness and delirium. There was a fever, limbs became immobile, strange things happened. The symptoms were strange and varied.

Crosby tells the story of this disease through the lives of the doctors who treated it and its victims, setting them against the contact of their times. She concentrates on New York, telling their story against the story of the city, but also looks at its global spread. In the case histories she shows what a dark disease this was. For adults those who survived had a good chance (for which, of course, read bad chance) of developing a virulent form of Parkinson's Disease, gradually becoming more and more immobile, frozen into living statues. It was people like these which became the subject of Olive Sacks' book and the subsequent film, Awakenings. When Sacks 'discovered' his patients in the 1960s, they and the disease had been forgotten for a generation.

Even worse was its effects on children; though physically less damaged they were changed, altered, they might become uncontrollable, wild, feral, or just different or fey. They might do terrible things to themselves, like 'Rosie' described here, who tore out her own eyes. Others could go into uncontrollable rages or wild seizures.

Those with the disease may linger on, the very last known survivor dying in England in 2002, after more than 70 years locked in on himself. There is still no consensus as to its cause, some say it was a complication of the influenza, others that it came from something as simple as a strep throat, perhaps it was an auto-immune disease.

Even if you were one of the lucky ones who thought they had recovered from the disease, it could get you years or even decades later. This is what happened to someone I knew, whom I will call Fred as it is nothing like his name. Fred was a teenager in the period 1926/7, starting on his first job, selling vacuum cleaners from door to door. One day it was very wet and he caught a chill, which developed into a fever then the sleepy sickness. Fred would fall asleep at meal times, but would also have periods of great restlessness and something that was perhaps sleep walking. He would say all sorts of outrageous things, such as that every girl he saw was his girl friend.

Just when his despairing parents had almost given up hope and were preparing to institutionalise him, he recovered. He went on to live a normal and active life, serving in the army during the Second World War, crossing Europe in the wake of the D-Day advance, got married had a family, built his own television set, was one of the first people we knew to have a car, one of the first to drive around Europe. Then in the mid 1960s Fred began to develop shortness of breath. What was first thought to bronchitis was the beginnings of the post-sleepy sickness Parkinson's Disease, which had laid dormant for 40 years.

The great epidemics occurred at a time when there was little of today's media, no Internet, no television, and for much of this period radio was still a crystal set hobby. The films were silent, and newspapers often dense with small type. Crosby suggests these things are not dead, occasional cases of sleepy sickness are still reported. If there was to be another double whammy set of pandemics in our age of 24 hour news and screaming headlines, it may well lead to social collapse.

Crosby suggests that it may be dim memories of outbreaks of sleepy sickness that led to the tale of the Sleeping Beauty, or Hawthorn's story of Rip Van Winkle. Perhaps also it helped inspire tales of people being taken by the fairies and brought back, somehow changed. The wild, feral nature of some of the childhood victims may well have inspired notions of changelings or those touched by the fairies. Crosby's own grandmother seems to have been one so changed by the disease - capable of carrying on a normal life, but strange and fay.

I can't help thinking that J. M. Barrie's play Mary Rose, published in 1920, is somehow inspired by early reports of this epidemic, or perhaps it is almost a presentiment of it. Probably also inspired by the folklore surrounding the disappearance of the keepers of the Eilean Mor lighthouse in 1900, as well as traditional fairy lore, the play tells of a young girl who disappears from a Hebredian island, only to come back weeks later, with no memory of what has happened, but somehow changed. She returns as a young mother, only to disappear again, returning unchanged decades later. I remember our primary school teacher reading this tale just at the time that Court of Mystery was introducing me to the Fortean world, and how this story seemed to fit in. -- Peter Rogerson.

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