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Get Well Soon

History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them

By Jennifer Wright
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Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright

Get Well Soon (2017) tells the story of the diseases and epidemics that have plagued humans from the distant past right up to the twentieth century, detailing the theories that people once had about certain diseases and how to treat them. There’s room in the story too for the heroes who made breakthroughs in the treatment and prevention of diseases, or who helped sufferers when others shunned them.  

Key idea 1 of 7

Don't go letting Saint Vitus inspire your dance moves.

Nowadays, the notion of someone dancing is quite a pleasant thing. In our mind’s eye, we see smiles, a wedding band starting up or maybe a few drinks being knocked back. But it wasn’t always this way.

In sixteenth-century Europe, a region bedeviled by plague, famine and wars, there was the chance that something more ominous was at play.

Famously, one day in 1518 in Strasbourg, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, a woman started spontaneously dancing in the street, and she only stopped dancing when she collapsed from exhaustion.

When she awoke, she started again, and before too long other townsfolk began joining in as well, jerking their limbs in every which way.

It wasn’t as fun as it might sound. A collective delirium had descended, and more and more people danced until blood flowed from their shoes and bones ruptured the skin on their feet.

Strasbourg’s elders were of a single mind: they theorized that the dancing was a punishment from heaven for the sins of everyone in the city. The answer they arrived at was to assuage God by banning gambling and prostitution.

It was no use though. The “dancing plague” persisted. Soon, 15 people a day lay dead from heart failure, dehydration or infections from the wounds on their feet

The authorities hypothesized that Saint Vitus, the patron saint of dancers, had caused the mania. They posited that by taking the dancers to worship at Saint Vitus’s shrine in nearby Hellensteg, he might forgive and cure them. At the shrine, each sufferer was given a pair of symbolic red shoes stained with the sign of the cross made in holy oil.

Remarkably, the cure worked. The afflicted stopped dancing and simply returned to their daily lives.

But, of course, faith cures don’t really work. Community care and concern had most likely been the true antidote.

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