‘Another kind of plague’

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    Professor Stephen Gehlbach, of Jaffrey, talks about his update "American Plagues" book on Tuesday, May 3. (Priscilla Morrill / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Priscilla Morrill—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript...

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    Professor Stephen Gehlbach, of Jaffrey, talks about his update "American Plagues" book on Tuesday, May 3. (Priscilla Morrill / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Priscilla Morrill—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript...

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 5/11/2016 5:25:35 PM

The Rev. Cotton Mather. Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. Journalist Edward R. Murrow. These are some of the familiar names from American history that make an appearance in Stephan Gehlbach’s “American Plagues: Lessons from Our Battles with Disease.”

The diseases du jour have changed since the birth of the nation, but Gehlbach has found the public’s reaction – especially when fear, uncertainty and misinformation are present – often lags behind scientific developments. And the result he says is “another kind of plague.”

”In some ways we haven’t come as far as we’d like in societal responses to diseases and epidemics,” the Jaffrey resident said. “We still have all of our personal demons to deal with in all of this.”

Gehlbach, dean emeritus of the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, will share the newly released updated edition of his book at Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough on Saturday, May 14, at 11 a.m. 

First published in 2005, the book was largely used in college classrooms, but Gehlbach hopes the updated edition will grab the attention of the general reader. Rather than beginning the book with definitions as most books in his field do, “American Plagues” focuses on the stories of real people in American history, such as Cotton Mather and his black servant, Onesimus.

”[In 1721,] he introduced the idea of a small sort of protective device against smallpox, which interestingly he learned from his slave,” Gehlbach explained, referring to innoculation by exposing a person to puss from an infected patient. “It turns out in Africa they had already been using this technique.”

The idea was reluctantly taken up by one doctor five years later in the midst of the smallpox epidemic in Boston, while simultaneously shunned by many others. Besides questioning the effectiveness of the method, men of the era also wondered if it could be a transgression against God. As Gehlbach put the question, “Did man have the right to intervene in the divine order of things?”

Seen as a punishment from God, people worried innoculating against smallpox might very well anger the almighty.

“American Plagues” moves through history and the diseases that came to fore along the way – tuberculosis, polio, cancer, heart disease – right up through the height of the AIDS epidemic when misinformation and misunderstanding led those with the disease to be shunned by society. 

Gehlbach noted how even children with the disease suffered from this treatment: “They became pariahs in their schools, and the other kids were not at risk. Eventually cooler heads prevailed.”

Though not in his book, the Zika virus is now causing an uproar, Gehlbach said, noting how fear-based reactions from the public continue to plague society.

“Learning from the past – that’s the whole reason for studying history,” he said.

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