Reviews

How the Brain Lost Its Mind By Allan H. Ropper and Brian Burrell (Review)

If anyone asked me would I ever want to go back in time, my answer is always no. Reading Ropper’s and Burrell’s take on the history of syphilis made my “no” even more firm

It’s an uncomfortable fact to acknowledge how deeply 19th and 20th-century science and eugenics entwined. Blood tests were a prerequisite to getting a marriage license. These tests were often used as a means for the state to promote anti-miscegenation. But there were also genuine health risks associated with these tests, too.

After the invention of the Wassermann test in 1906, syphilis could be diagnosed with a simple blood test. Why this disease? It can lead to neurological disorders. Birth defects. And even death. And 10% of the urban population had it. Mabel Dodge Luhan, a famous patroness of the arts in New Mexico, had an abortion out of fear of giving it to her child, and nearly gave up sex all together after she was infected for the third time by her third husband.

Cures were spotty and dangerous. Savaraan 606 could give you terrible migraines, seizures, and death. Arsenic and mercury treatments amounted to sixteen-month injections that worked or didn’t. By 1917 pyrotherapy was introduced which often meant trading one disease for another (mostly malaria which got the body temperature up to 105 degrees).

Yes, there are plenty of things that suck about 2020. But modern medicine is not one of them.

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