The uncanny illness seemed to arise out of the WWI battlefields. In 1916, soldiers were evacuated from the trenches at Verdun, and in the field hospitals some were stricken with flu like symptoms just before they fell into a deep sleep. Some would eventually wake, and some would not. Those that did not die often awoke to a living nightmare of disability and/or psychosis.
As the “Sleeping Sickness” entered the general population, an increasingly frantic medical community strove to find a cause or a treatment. Five million people are estimated to have contracted it, and over nine thousand articles were published in the medical literature during its reign. But then the pandemic suddenly disappeared in the late 1920s, and it was forgotten. Encephalitis Lethargica had vanished into history again.
Crosby’s book, Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries, is a multi-layered medical mystery that re-creates the people, the times, and the newly developing science of neurology. It’s written in an engrossing lyrical style, as we trace the epidemic’s stages.
Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote his fascinating book Awakenings, (also a movie), about a group of patients that he treated in the sixties, who were all victims of that twenties epidemic, and he highly recommends Crosby’s work, calling it “A brilliant, deeply moving account.”