Defeating ‘the American Plague’

Yellow fever doesn’t have the cachet of the Black Death or the Asian flu, but the mosquito-borne disease nicknamed “the American Plague” has tormented the world for centuries.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the virus causes 200,000 cases and 30,000 deaths each year, and not just in the tropics. The disease first struck New York City in 1668, followed by at least 25 major outbreaks in the Americas, including an 1878 epidemic in the Mississippi River Valley that killed 20,000 people.

There is a vaccine, developed after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1912 by scientists throughout the world. However, historically it needed to be freeze-dried, a process prone to mechanical issues until it was refined in the early 1950s by National Drug in the small hamlet of Swiftwater, Pennsylvania.

You can read the story of this and other vaccine innovations in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the pioneers of immunization who fought to revolutionize healthcare in America.

An outbreak of innovation

The Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 wasn’t the first pandemic to sweep America.

In the late 1800s, smallpox ravaged the nation. In New York City, the mid-century death rate from the disease hit 21.9 people per 100,000. In nearby Pennsylvania, by 1900 the disease had killed thousands.

There was a vaccine. And it worked. Some of the time. And there were side-effects.

The solution? A cross-cultural effort that combined French ingenuity with American innovation.

You can read the full story in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the pioneers of immunization who fought the odds to revolutionize healthcare in America.

 

 

When history repeats itself

It’s wonderful when readers are touched by something I’ve written. As Carla-Donna has given me permission, I thought I’d share her review of my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater: 100 Years at the Pocono Labs. It chronicles the history of vaccines in the 20th century, through the stories of people who helped to eradicate smallpox, among others diseases. Here’s Carla’s history, and her take on the book.
“I just purchased The Spirit of Swiftwater. The reason being, I was wondering if they were going to start work on a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. When I looked them up, somehow I was introduced to your book. Long story short, I grew up in Stroudsburg, my home town, and had once applied for a job at Swiftwater during my college years at East Stroudsburg State College. Our friend, Pete Gerard, made it his career working there. It was nice to see his name in the book.
“My name is Carla-Donna (Holmgren) Martin. My father, Donald Holmgren, had a store in Stroudsburg, Donald’s Family Shoes, for many years.
“As it turned out, I became a registered medical technologist and retired from working 40 years in the hospital laboratory at Lancaster General Hospital, Lancaster, PA. My husband and I live in Lititz now and still visit Stroudsburg several times a year.
“Kudos to you for this very informative work on the Swiftwater Lab. Doc Slee was a household name growing up and this book was enlightening on his family and wonderful achievements and the ups and downs of the lab’s growth.
“In light of what we as a nation and the world are going through right now, hopefully a vaccine will be forthcoming from Swiftwater!”

The vaccine-hunters

The novel coronavirus is sweeping the world. How does a vaccine-maker meet that challenge?

More than a hundred years ago, Dr. Richard Slee faced a similar situation with another virulent disease–smallpox. His fight provides a window into that process, and a cause for hope.

First, some background on one of the unsung pioneers of medicine. (His story appears in detail in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater.) Slee was born in 1867, a golden age of American expansion. He became a physician and went to work for the surgeon general of the Army, later the United States, a forward thinker who was concerned about the spread of smallpox. Pandemics in sixteenth-century Mexico killed 3.5 million people and accounted for nearly 9% of all deaths in nineteenth-century England. By the late 1800s, similar outbreaks were ravaging major cities in the United States.

The irony was, Americans had access to a vaccine. It just had some serious side effects, and that generated a public backlash. The French, on the other hand, had developed a safer version. The surgeon general wanted to manufacture it in the United States, and sent Slee to France to learn the secret.

Slee returned with a glowing report. Not only was the French formula more efficient, it had fewer side effects. As a bonus, it offered a longer shelf life, essential to any medicine that isn’t immediately used.

The surgeon general was so impressed, he encouraged Slee to build his own facility to manufacture the vaccine.

The rest, as they say, is history.

 

Gardner’s Ghosts

On a warm Tuesday in September of 1982, I received a letter from the novelist John Gardner about a collection of my short stories he’d been gracious enough to critique. That evening, as I sat in the newsroom editing copy, the city editor swiveled his computer monitor and said, “You should read this.”

Gardner had died that day, the 14th, in a motorcycle accident. The description in the story that had moved over the wire read like something from his novels. It didn’t make sense. I’d just seen him, on my first and only visit to his house in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, standing in his makeshift office, touring his home, speaking to his fiancée. He was a living legend among writers, his novel October Light a bestseller, his newest at the time, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, leading the book review section of the New York Times. Unlike many celebrities, he was approachable, hospitable to emerging writers. And now he was gone.

John Champlin Gardner Jr. was born on July 21, 1933. His death 36 years ago came as a blow. The author of 14 novels and numerous others works, he taught at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the State University of New York’s Binghamton University. All notable achievements, but a CV hardly describes his influence.

Over the course of his career, he evolved from ardent critic to mentor who embraced veterans and novitiates alike. Still, his true north was in storytelling. He eschewed labels, focusing on the ancient art, rewriting epic tales like Beowulf from the monster’s point of view and putting people at the heart of great philosophical debates. He strove to create what he called “a vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader, writing novels with an intensity often reserved for short stories and poetry.

His passion overflowed in his nonfiction, too. Gardner seemed obsessed with the collision of philosophy and culture. He constantly argued against nihilism, a doctrine that claims nothing is knowable and rejects all distinctions in moral value. In his work of criticism, On Moral Fiction, he called for books with “just and compassionate behavior,” art that “establishes models of human action.” It’s likely he deeply identified with Grendel, the monster in Beowulf, who finds itself cast from heaven because it is ugly, comes from a bad family and asks too many questions—possibly a comment on the maligned state of humans, as Gardner’s father was a lay preacher.

While his characters were not always models of behavior, Gardner treated students and aspiring writers with a generosity and grace consistent with his values. I first met him in May of 1982 after he spoke, at the invitation of professor and novelist Fred Misurella, at East Stroudsburg State College, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Gardner looked the part of the Great Writer, sporting a shock of white hair overflowing his forehead and small, wrinkled bags under his eyes. His ubiquitous pipe kept winking out as he talked. He also acted the part. After reading aloud the first page of one of my stories, he invited me to his home in Susquehanna for a longer critique.

* * *

Gardner lived across an open metal bridge on the edge of town, in a farmhouse nestled among the hills the locals call the Endless Mountains, purplish gray and draped with mist like the webs of tent caterpillars. The clapboard house resembled an old train station, with curlicues over the porch. Inside sat Gardner’s son, Joel, a photographer, and Susan Thornton. She and John were to be married that Saturday. A colleague of his handed him a few short stories and a novel for Gardner’s comments. They talked about producing plays in Susquehanna and about a literary magazine on which he was working.

Then it was my turn. Gardner retreated to his study, a spare room with big windows, to concentrate on the story I’d brought. His desk consisted of a door resting on two sawhorses, covered with pipes and stacks of papers. He hunched over the work, making quick notes in pencil. Then he and Susan had to leave, Gardner apologizing repeatedly for offering me so little time.

In the living room, I asked Joel how much of his father’s work was autobiographical. Not much, he said, but then opened the door to the dining room. With its thick beams and sparkling new plaster, it resembled something out of Mickelsson’s Ghosts.

There were other similarities. The main character in that novel, Peter Mickelsson, is a professor at SUNY Binghamton who is battling a failing national reputation and the IRS. He lives in Susquehanna and is going through a divorce. That much mirrored Gardner’s life. But Mickelsson is going mad, his mind enflamed with the ghosts of Martin Luther and Nietzsche, as well as his wife, son, two lovers and a murderous couple who used to live in the farmhouse. Joel smiled at this and said his father invented most of the book.

* * *

John Gardner was born in Batavia, in northwestern New York. His father worked as a dairy farmer, his mother as a high school literature teacher. His first novel sold about a thousand copies, but The Sunlight Dialogues became a bestseller in 1972 and October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He was an academic but not an elitist. Playboy paid top dollar for his short stories. (“Julius Caesar and the Werewolf” appeared in September 1984). He raced motorcycles, survived surgery for cancer of the colon and was married several times. He settled in rural Susquehanna on a 30-acre farm and continued to work.

A gifted writer with a marvelous ear for dialogue, he always wrote interesting books. But with Mickelsson’s Ghosts, he had completed his evolution, merging philosophy with a vital narrative, tempered by a humility that bordered on self-doubt. By the time he got to Susquehanna, he’d turned the ferocious critic into a man who wanted to say good things about others. People believed he was trying to find his place.

That day at his house, he seemed subdued. Seated on the couch, he spoke in a smooth and quiet voice about future projects. As an aside, I said I’d had trouble finding his work in the local bookstore. The novels weren’t filed under the category of “Fiction.” I’d asked the clerk if she carried the author and she led me to the back of the store. We found his books filed under “Literature.”

Gardner listened intently, without expression, then threw back his head and laughed.

What’s my (opening) line?

I was sitting next to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce when he challenged the group to recall a favorite first line of a book. His was the opening of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Many years later, as he faced a firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

We went round robin. My contribution was the epic opening of John Mortimer’s introduction to his titular character in “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” a line (it stretches half a page) too long to reproduce here, let alone remember in full at the time.

I hadn’t thought about that conversation until last week, when I came across the short story “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas in The New Yorker. The story opens with the line, “I slept through the burglary.” Now, who could possibly do that? I thought. It’s a provocative lead, one that introduces the unique voice of a singular character. I read the story in one gulp.

There are many well-known openings, from Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) to the Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to the oft-parodied line from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I’m sure you have some favorites, maybe Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” or Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Just so.

And then there are the lesser-known kickoffs, the ones that brim with promise, that say, if you keep reading, you shall discover new worlds with a companionable guide.

Here, in no particular order, is a collection of my favorites, a mix of contemporary and classic lines from male and female authors alike:

“Woman’s lying in bed and the bed’s on fire.” Don Winslow, California Fire and Life.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups.

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Gillian Flynn, Dark Places.

“It began, as the greatest of storms do begin, as a mere tremor in the air, a thread of sound so distant and faint, yet so ominous, that the ear that was sharp enough to catch it instantly pricked and shut out present sounds to strain after it again, and interpret the warning.” Ellis Peters, The Sanctuary Sparrow.

“On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” Anne Lamott, Plan B.

“It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then.” Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley.

“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” Elmore Leonard, Glitz.

“This really happened, this story.” Laurie Lynn Drummond, Anything You Say Can and Will be Used Against You.

“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” T.C. Boyle, “Descent of Man.”

 “Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits.” Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer.

“Joe lived, but it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of.” C.J. Box, Open Season.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, Neuromancer.

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” Janet Evanovich, One for the Money.

And lastly, my all-time favorite, a slight deviation from the pattern we’ve established here in that the quote needs a second sentence to complete the punchline. It’s from Jennifer Crusie’s breakout novel Tell Me Lies. “One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”

Now that’s a keeper.

What are you favorite opening lines? Leave a comment here, or on your social medium of choice.

Playing it safe

The National Association of Realtors has been at the forefront of promoting agent safety. The organization’s Realtor Safety Program website offers several resources for agents as well as background on why a personal safety plan is important. It also provides a context for buyers and sellers who may see some of these precautions as inconvenient or unnecessary.

One of the most accessible tools on the site is the video “Real Estate, Safety, and You,” through which consumers can learn about the safety protocols they may encounter when working with an agent.

(In Curb Appeal, fictional real estate agent CW McCoy breaks it down into the Three C’s: set the initial client meeting in the office, copy their drivers’ licenses and, when showing the property, never get cornered.)

 

 

 

Eradicating ignorance

We take vaccines for granted. We get our shots as kids and forget about the process until we have children of our own. In the Western Hemisphere, we generally don’t see the diseases that plague the Third World. We call them preventable.

A hundred years ago, the science of immunology was struggling, and so were its advocates. Just before Dr. Richard Slee was born in 1867, the French biologist Louis Pasteur had proven the germ theory of disease. It wasn’t until 1885 that Pasteur field tested his vaccine for rabies.

Twelve years later, when Slee built his laboratory to manufacture smallpox vaccine in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, the disease was still considered a major threat to public health. It would not be eradicated worldwide until 1980. To complicate the issue, the technology of the time caused some of those patients to become ill. Because of those adverse reactions, vaccines of the time stimulated fear as well as immunity.

Some things haven’t change.

In Minnesota, 73 cases of measles have been confirmed this year, three more than the Spirit of Swiftwatertotal for the entire country last year, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health.

The CDC and the World Health Organization also are concerned with the rise in the number of cases of mumps, polio, rubella, whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

How did Dr. Slee manage to eradicate smallpox in America? And how has the science of infectious-disease prevention progressed over the last century?

You can follow the struggles and triumphs of the people who shaped modern medicine in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a history of vaccine development in the twentieth century. The book chronicles the pioneers of immunization who fought against the odds to establish this form of health care as standard public policy in America, with a focus on the U.S. operations of sanofi pasteur, the vaccines business of sanofi-aventis Group. Reviewers describe the work as “a thoroughly documented historical perspective of the vaccine industry in the US as seen through the history of one of its leading contributors that is also entertaining reading.”

Now, if you’re really ready for a Horatio Alger story with a medical spin, take a look at One in a Million by Mary G. Clark. In this ghosted memoir, Mary tells the story of how she took her wound-care company from the coal fields of Scranton, Pa. to the NASDAQ. The book starts with a touch of mysticism and ends with science, a fitting story for our times.

Thinking Out Loud

I met Anna Quindlen at a video store in Snydersville, PA. We were feeding cassettes into the drop-off box. It was after hours and getting dark. I think I startled her. She used to live in New Jersey and was living in Cherry Valley, not far from my home, near Stroudsburg. Maybe she still lives there.

I worked for the local newspaper. She worked for the New York Times. I’d written a corporate history. She’d won the Pulitzer Prize. Now she writes novels with an eye a detective would envy.

millers-valley-coverMiller’s Valley is her latest book. At times the novel sounds like the saga of the Tocks Island Dam. At times it sounds universal, as if the flooding and evictions take place everywhere, all the time.

In a passage near the center of the book, the narrator, a high-school student named Mimi Miller, is talking to her brother Tommy, who’s just back from Vietnam.

“I didn’t know exactly what Tommy did with himself all day, but he was still in basic-training condition. All the other guys at the VFW had big bellies sloping over their belts. ‘Baby likes beer’ they would say, rubbing their midsections like a genie would show up and they would get three wishes.”

I wish I could write like Anna Quindlen. I wish I could see like Anna Quindlen.

Just thinking out loud.

Lend us your friends’ ears

Audible has a new service called Clips. It works like bookmarks do in e-books and web browsers, with a feature for the sharing economy.

Here’s how.

Audible clipsFirst, you have to have the latest app for an iOS device. Then, when you hear a passage you’d like to share with others, tap the Clip icon, move the start and end points and save it the snippet, or share via email or social media.

Saving the clip allows you to return to that spot for a repeat performance. Benefit to you. Sharing the clip amplifies Audible’s marketing and might eventually put a few more pennies in the pockets of its authors and narrators. Game, set and match to Audible.

But before grow too critical, I’d like listeners to try the service on one of my audiobooks, Peak Season or Mr. Mayhem, depending on whether you like a strong female lead or a crazy disgraced journalist nattering in your ear for seven hours.

Speaking of nattering . . . let me know what you think.