The bubonic plague! The very name conjures up ghoulish images of the medieval era, but my Dad remembers two outbreaks of the dreaded disease in the twentieth century, during his own childhood in Ratnagiri. He can date the second one fairly accurately to 1939 or 1940, because the outbreak coincided with his matriculation exams and, due to the danger of infection in the district town of Ratnagiri, he had to travel all the way to Kolhapur to sit them. (He recalls, too, that he left his geometry set (remember those?) at home and had to lose valuable exam time waiting to borrow his friend’s compass and protractor.) The first outbreak must have been about five years earlier. Since the plague is spread by rat fleas and rats frequent built-up areas, his whole family moved to the edge of town and camped out for the duration. Dad remembers it only as fun, but I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for his mother to manage a household of eight children and a husband who had to get dressed for court in the morning while living in tents. But it worked: no one in the family was stricken with the plague, and our grandparents successfully raised all eight of their children to adulthood, no mean feat in the days before antibiotics were available to treat infections. In the early twentieth century, the plague killed an estimated 10 million people in India.
It’s hard to remember that it was not until the Second World War that antibiotics became available, not until 1942 that penicillin was being mass-produced. Before then, a host of childhood diseases were seriously life-threatening. My paternal grandparents were lucky enough not to lose a child, but my maternal grandparents were not so fortunate. Two of their eight children died of diptheria before 1920, and although a vaccine became available in the mid-1920’s it wasn’t until 1940, when my mother was a teenager, that a nationwide vaccination program was established in Britain. In-between, 2,500 children died from diptheria every year.
Even in my own childhood vaccinations were still fairly new, and our annual trip to the doctor for a series of injections—smallpox, cholera, polio—was serious business. Those of us who grew up before the World Health Organization’s smallpox radication campaign, which started in 1967 and was finally successful in 1980, all bear the lifelong scars of our injections; until then, smallpox epidemics raged around the world . My father came down with the disease as a young man—a mild case, thankfully—and still carries a few marks from it. My father-in-law was not so lucky, and came down with polio in 1953, when Andrew was a baby, just months before Jonas Salk developed his vaccine. He still suffers from post-polio syndrome.
Not surprisingly, injections loomed large in our young minds. Our instincts told us to avoid them like the plague, but reason reminded us that we needed them to avoid the plague. We steeled ourselves to face them bravely, but they certainly weren’t any fun. One day in the early 1960s, when I was about eight, I arrived at school in Athens to the announcement that everyone in the whole school was going to be vaccinated—for what, I don’t remember, but I think it was chicken pox (for which a vaccine was not to be available until the 1990s). Our collective heart sank, but we all lined up dutifully to walk one by one into a classroom set up as a makeshift infirmary and walk out by another door. When it was my turn, I screwed up my courage and stretched out my arm to a teacher who prepped the area with a peroxide-soaked cotton ball. As I prepared myself for the needle, I was greeted with, “April Fool!” It was all an elaborate April Fool’s Day hoax.