In September 12, 1895, a Nebraskan named Jessie Allan died of tuberculosis. Such deaths were a common occurrence at the turn of the 20th century, but Allan’s case of “consumption” reportedly came from an unusual source.
She was a librarian at the Omaha Public Library, and thanks to a common fear of the time, people worried that Allan’s terminal illness may have come from a book.
“The death of Miss Jessie Allan is doubly sad because of the excellent reputation which her work won for her and the pleasant affection which all librarians who knew her had come to feel for her, and because her death has given rise to a fresh discussion as to the possibility of infection from contagious diseases through library books,” the Library Journal, published by the American Librarians Association, wrote in October of 1895.Allan’s death occurred during what is sometimes called the “great book scare.”
This scare, now mostly forgotten, was a frantic panic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that contaminated books—particularly ones lent out from libraries—could spread deadly diseases. The panic sprung from “the public understanding of the causes of diseases as germs,” says Annika Mann, a professor at Arizona State University and author of Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print.
Librarians worried that Allan’s death, which became a focal point of the scare, would dissuade people from borrowing books and lead to a decline in support for public libraries. “Possibly there is some danger from this source; since the bacillus was discovered danger is found to lurk in places hitherto unsuspected,” the Library Journal continues. “But the greater danger, perhaps, comes in over-estimating this source of danger and frightening people into a nervous condition.”
Concerns about spreading disease through the lending of books would have serious impacts on the proliferation and growth of libraries. At a time when support for public libraries was growing nationwide, book-lending institutions faced a major challenge from the disease scare.
Illness was rife in this period in both Britain and the United States. Epidemics including “tuberculosis, smallpox and scarlet fever” were taking “a fearful toll in urban areas,” according to scholar Gerald S. Greenberg’s 1988 article “Books as Disease Carriers, 1880-1920.” For a populace that was already on edge about fatal diseases, the idea of contaminated library books passing from hand to hand became a significant source of anxiety.
An 18th century caricature using a devil figure to illustrate the pain and inflammation caused by gout. In the middle ages pain was seen as a lesson from God. (James Gillray (1756-1815)/ Getty Images)
‘Pain is Ageless’ and UK historian Joanna Bourke has just released The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers. She recently spoke with Antony Funnell about suffering and its social and historical context.
At its most basic, pain is an early warning system. It signals danger—that something is wrong—but it can also be a pleasure.
Many of us devour chilli not just because of the flavour it imparts, but because of the way it makes us feel—that tingling, burning feeling that’s all too addictive.
There is pleasure also in the infliction and receipt of pain, and not just for those who dwell in the darker corners of society. Witness the phenomenal mainstream success of books like Fifty Shades of Grey.
The amount of pain that we feel is really very, very dependent on a lot of external circumstances. It’s influenced by everything around us.
Pain has also been an instrument of authority.
The hanging, drawing and quartering of traitors in 14th century England had little to do with justice. A simple blade would have sufficed.
Such punishments were about making a public display of pain to reiterate the power of the state, indeed the power of the monarch, over human life itself.
That developed nations no longer use pain in this way (even in the United States executions are at least intended to be quick and surgical) speaks to the fact that our relationship with pain is subject to social mores, to fashion over time—that it is imbued with historical context.
Not long ago, a precious packet of blood traveled more than 7,000 miles by special courier, from America to Australia, to save the life of a newborn. Months before the delivery date, a routine checkup of the mom-to-be had revealed that the fetus suffered from hemolytic disease.
Doctors knew that the baby would need a blood transfusion immediately after delivery. The problem was, the baby’s blood type was so rare that there wasn’t a single compatible donor in all of Australia.
A request for compatible blood was sent first to England, where a global database search identified a potential donor in the United States.
From there, the request was forwarded to the American Rare Donor Program, directed by Sandra Nance. The ARDP had compatible frozen blood on hand, but Nance knew that a frozen bag might rupture in transit.
So her organization reached out to the compatible donor, collected half a liter of fresh blood, and shipped it across the Pacific. When the mother came in to give birth, the blood was waiting. “It was just magic,” Nance says.
You’re probably aware of eight basic blood types: A, AB, B and O, each of which can be “positive” or “negative.” They’re the most important, because a patient who receives ABO +/– incompatible blood very often experiences a dangerous immune reaction.
For the sake of simplicity, these are the types that organizations like the Red Cross usually talk about. But this system turns out to be a big oversimplification.
Each of these eight types of blood can be subdivided into many distinct varieties. There are millions in all, each classified according to the little markers called antigens that coat the surface of red blood cells.
AB blood contains A and B antigens, while O blood doesn’t contain either; “positive” blood contains the Rhesus D antigen, while “negative” blood lacks it. Patients shouldn’t receive antigens that their own blood lacks—otherwise their immune system may recognize the blood as foreign and develop antibodies to attack it.
That’s why medical professionals pay attention to blood types in the first place, and why compatible blood was so important for the baby in Australia. There are in fact hundreds of antigens that fall into 33 recognized antigen systems, many of which can cause dangerous reactions during transfusion.
One person’s blood can contain a long list of antigens, which means that a fully specified blood type has to be written out antigen by antigen—for example, O, r”r”, K:–1, Jk(b-).
Try fitting that into that little space on your Red Cross card.