"When I first encountered the patients whom I later wrote about in Awakenings—patients who had all had the epidemic sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, forty or more years before, I could find no good general account of the epidemic which had devastated their lives and killed thousands, perhaps millions, of others. Molly Crosby has provided a brilliant and deeply moving account of the fearful years between 1915 and 1927, when this mysterious, worldwide pandemic struck, giving us vivid, intensely human portraits of seven individuals caught up in this epidemic, and the physicians who did their best to understand and help them. In the end, Asleep reminds us that this strange, often terrible disease is not extinct, only quiescent. It may well strike again in our lifetimes."
—Oliver Sacks, author of Awakenings
The year was 1918. America was recovering from the Great War and battling the massive flu pandemic when a mysterious, new disease emerged.
The Wagner-Jauregg clinic had seen many patients recently, but most were returning soldiers. This sleepy, lethargic patient had nothing to do with the war. The physicians could not even identify what was broken—there was no physical trauma, no history of insanity, no single infection that caused symptoms like this. It was unlike anything the doctors had ever seen. To make matters worse, his case was soon followed by a dozen more. And the symptoms only became stranger…
This epidemic would strike as many as 5 million people throughout the world, killing a third of them and leaving thousands more institutionalized for the rest of their lives. The victims fell into a long sleep—for weeks or even months. Many never awoke. But the world soon learned that dying was not the tragedy of this disease; surviving it was.
In this extraordinary book, the author of The American Plague tells the story of a sleeping sickness epidemic that has been largely forgotten in the shadow of the Spanish Flu that accompanied it. Set in fascinating 1920s and 30s New York, it follows a group of physicians through hospitals and insane asylums as they try to solve a worldwide pandemic. With symptoms ranging from Parkinson’s to violent insanity, it would also become a catalyst for the advancement of an entire field of medical study: neurology.
Then, in 1927, the disease would disappear as suddenly as it arrived, and the mystery
To this day, doctors do not know what caused the pandemic of encephalitis lethargica—literally, “the encephalitis that makes you sleepy.” They do know, however, that cases still occur today, and an epidemic is likely to re-emerge in the wake of the next flu pandemic. Asleep takes the reader into the frightening history of this mysterious disease—and the fight to conquer it before it strikes again.
For general information about encephalitis lethargica, visit the National Institutes of Health site. Click on this link for the CDC's page about the 1918 H1N1 "avian flu," among others, and click on this link for the CDC's updated statistics on the 2009 H1N1 "swine flu." Three excellent books on the 1918 flu pandemic were used in the research for Asleep: John M. Barry's The Great Influenza, Gina Kolata's Flu, and Alfred Crosby's America's Forgotten Pandemic.
UPDATES: Even since the publication of Asleep, new information continues to come out about autoimmune encephalitis--like the one described in my book--which is swelling in the brain in response to an infection. One of the biggest breakthroughs has been the discovery of NMDAR-antibodies in the brain. See the following article on "Autoimmune Encephalitis" for more information.