Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Ravages of Encephalitis Lethargica

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Ravages of Encephalitis Lethargica

Article excerpt

Encephalitis lethargica spread throughout the world slowly beginning about 1917, its seriousness becoming apparent to the medical community just as the world was reeling from the crises ofWorld War I and the 1918 influenza epidemic. The medical profession scrambled to determine the origin of this epidemic encephalitis and find its cure. Municipal health departments worked to warn the population in hopes of preventing further outbreaks.

The March 11, 1923, New York Times ran the headline "SLEEPING SICKNESS WARNING SENT OUT" It reported, "In an effort to prevent an increase in the number of cases of encephalitis lethargica, commonly known as 'sleeping sickness,' and other respiratory diseases. Dr. Frank J. Monaghan, Health Commissioner, issued a warning yesterday against careless coughing, sneezing and spitting."

By 1927, doctors still had few answers about this disease, yet the "Sleepy Sickness" epidemic was coming to an end. In her book, Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine's Greatest Mysteries, Molly Caldwell Crosby writes:

This epidemic would strike as many as 5 million people throughout the world, killing a third ofthem and leaving thousands more institutionalized for the rest of their lives. …

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