Unintended Preparation

I was twelve, I think, when I discovered Berton Roueche, a features writer who had a column called “The Annals of Medicine” in the New Yorker for something like five decades. I believe the Weekly Science Reader (or something like that) which we got in my 7th grade science class carried an abridged version of a piece he did about a family felled by botulism from improperly prepared canned mushrooms. Little did I realize this was going to be my gateway into a lifetime of fascination with medical neep.

I’m the girl who, when giving platelets, asked the Blood Donation crew all sorts of questions about the machinery that was extracting my blood, spinning out the platelets, and returning the blood right back into my arm, all while I watched Galaxy Quest and ate snacks. When I broke my arm and required surgery, I apparently came out of anesthesia asking questions of the staff around me about different kinds of anesthetic. I never wanted to be a medical professional: I just find medicine, its history, and its practice, fascinating.

Which means that right now, thanks to “The Annals of Medicine,” I feel, in a creepy sort of way, in my element.

Berton Roueche wrote, among other things, about the public health doctors in New York City. They were, of course, cutting edge, but now they carry the same sort of black-and-white-gritty-NYC feeling of a 1947 New York City detective movie; you get the feeling everyone wears a hat, and smokes, and wears leather-soled shoes. But the detective work of hunting down a typhoid epidemic (how did people from all over the borough of Manhattan get sick when they had no contact with each other?), or discovering why a dozen homeless men on the Lower East Side turned sky blue when they got sick… riveting. These guys (in the 40s and 50s of the earlier columns it was mostly guys) were medical detectives, tracing infections to their root, solving mysteries where the bad guys were chemical or biological. They are Public Health heroes, driving by the desire to get to the bottom of a problem and keep people safe.

This led me to a fascination with epidemics, past and present. Because of one of my current writing projects I know more about syphilis than is entirely healthy (honest to God, how did anyone in 18th century Europe NOT have syphilis?). I’ve read several books about the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic, and about the Black Death. Because it’s fascinating. The net result of this is that I’m both more and less concerned about coronavirus. I know just enough, probably, to be dangerous, except that what I know, first and foremost, is the depth of my own ignorance. When I’m tempted to make a pronouncement, I remind myself that I know nothing.  Instead, I collect what facts I can, and attempt not to panic.

One comforting thought? We know a hell of a lot more now about viruses and how they spread than we did in 1918. We understand more about the stuff we, the rank and file, can do: social distancing, washing your hands early and often, and practicing common sense (feel sick? STAY HOME!). One of the things I learned from Berton Roueche is to believe in science. It may get things wrong, but it does so on the way to getting them right.

Stay healthy.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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Unintended Preparation — 8 Comments

    • It’s complex, and I haven’t read the piece in mumble years, but what I remember is….

      All of these guys were elderly men of what we used to call the Bowery Bum persuasion: they lived marginally in flophouses and ate at the cheap that hash-houses that catered to the down-on-their-luck. Complicating matters for the Public Health officials who dealt with this is that these men were peripatetic: not all of them wound up in the same hospital, which meant it took a while for the medical establishment to realize there was a pattern. The pattern was: all of these guys had had breakfast at the same place, and eaten the same thing: oatmeal. After inspecting the kitchen and restaurant the Public Health investigators discovered a big box of sodium nitrite, used during WWII in place of sodium nitrate for some meat processing (sausages, corning beef, etc.). In sufficient quantities it can be poisonous. In preparing the oatmeal that morning, the cook had mistakenly used a big handful of sodium nitrite instead of salt. For most people the dose of sodium nitrite was sub-clinical, but for these eleven guys, who had alcohol- and age-related systemic vulnerabilities, it was toxic. And the toxicity expressed itself in, among other things, cyanosis: turning the victims blue.

      Of the eleven men, one died. He was the one whose tastebuds were so far gone that he added extra salt to his oatmeal–with salt from a salt shaker that had also, mistakenly, been filled from the box of sodium nitrite.

      The story left an impression, since I can recall this much detail 50 years later!

    • He did a bunch more of them–The Incurable Wound, The Orange Man, and The Man Who Grew Two Breasts, among others.

      Right now I’m wondering if I still have all those paperbacks. They were fascinating.

  1. Oh, I’m a Berton Roueche fan too!! I share your fascination, and have an idea for a story that I’ve been playing with involving the encephalitis lethargica epidemic that overlapped with the Spanish flu.

    • I know. The Medical Detectives is missing some of my favorites, but it’s still a trove. I might have to re-read it; in these troubled times there’s something soothing about seeing dedicated public health professionals celebrated for being professional (as they should all be).