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"...we still can’t tell whether we are all about to die or whether we are being sold a bill of goods."
September 11, 2011 8:52 AM   Subscribe

'The stories about epidemics that are told in the American press—their plots and tropes—date to the 1920's, when modern research science, science journalism, and science fiction were born.' This is the story of how the media back then (January, 1930) helped fuel fears about a parrot-fever pandemic, and the subsequent public backlash. (Via)

Article is from 2009.
posted by zarq (24 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Before the First World War, journalists didn’t generally report on science

After the First World War, journalists generally report on science very very badly.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:16 AM on September 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


Before it was over, an admiral in the U.S. Navy ordered sailors at sea to cast their pet parrots into the ocean. One city health commissioner urged everyone who owned a parrot to wring its neck. People abandoned their pet parrots on the streets.

Whoops.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:29 AM on September 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


The very face of horror.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 9:39 AM on September 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


This scare extended well beyond the borders of the US: in a scene in "Tintin in the Congo", Snowy's tail is bitten by a parrot, leading to much worry about psittacosis. That scene had intrigued me ever since my childhood: while psittacosis is an extremely obscure disease these days, I had no idea it was such a topical subject when "Tintin in the Congo" was first published, in serialized form (in 1930 and 1931).
I guess that it isn't a coincidence either that this particular health scare was nearly at the same time as the 1929 Crash and its first economic consequences: people sure must have been feeling jumpy at the time...
posted by Skeptic at 9:43 AM on September 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


The pet-shop owner, who may have been wise to the fact that Simon Martin was secretary of the Annapolis Chamber of Commerce, at first insisted the bird was simply "pining for the Pampas"
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:49 AM on September 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


The experts who descended on Annapolis in early January, 1930, weren’t half as baffled as the Washington Post made them out to be, but the reading public must have been at least twice as confused.

Well, that's about it for tonight ladies and gentlemen, but remember if you've enjoyed watching the show just half as much as we've enjoyed doing it, then we've enjoyed it twice as much as you. Ha, ha, ha. [The sixteen-ton weight falls on him.]
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:55 AM on September 11, 2011


It's always comforting to see that civilization has been dealing with the same over-the-top scares we face today, surviving if not overcoming them.
posted by meese at 10:08 AM on September 11, 2011


hmmm...interesting...i seem to remember a similar thing happening with anthrax, oh, about ten years ago...
posted by sexyrobot at 10:33 AM on September 11, 2011


hmmm...interesting...i seem to remember a similar thing happening with anthrax, oh, about ten years ago...

Yes, and A is also for Alarming.
posted by hal9k at 10:39 AM on September 11, 2011


This was a great article, thanks! My great-grandmother, who raised me, was sent to the mountains in Colorado during the 1918 flu. In the panic, her parents felt the only way for her to survive, was to get her as far away as they could. I guess they were right, they lost several family members to it. Later, she sweated through a terrifying bout with scarlet fever in her own child (even though there was a vaccine by then).

By the time I came along, I think she was ready to put me in a plastic bubble :) These experiences made a deep impression on her. She lived in abject fear of germs and disease, justifiably. That generation and their predecessors saw an awful lot of death to illnesses, that kind of journalism would work like a charm.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 10:47 AM on September 11, 2011


Wow, that article has an amazing final line twist. Bravo.
posted by Ian A.T. at 10:54 AM on September 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


> people sure must have been feeling jumpy at the time

Not to mention that much of the newspaper-reading parrot-owning demographic would have lived through the 1918 Flu Pandemic, which killed about 3% of the world's population. Older people would recall the Third Pandemic of bubonic plague, which killed millions.

Medical science didn't have much to offer against infectious diseases at the time - penicillin, the first antibiotic, was only discovered in 1928 and not tested clinically until 1930, without much success at first. Vaccines were available for only a few diseases, and antiviral drugs didn't come along until most of us MeFites were alive. It's easy to understand how people would have over-reacted (with hindsight) to another potential epidemic.

What's annoying is that the media have learned that FUD sells, particularly the "invisible killers!" type, and we rise to the bait every time. It's like we need to fret and worry and we'll make stuff up if we have to.
posted by Quietgal at 10:59 AM on September 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


We get sooo excited over major epidemics, both real and fictional, Meanwhile, the death toll from AIDS is predicted to outpace the Black Plague's in our lifetimes.

Right now 3% of all adults in Washington DC are infected. That's a greater percentage than entire countries such as Ethiopia or Rwanda can claim. I have such a bitter feeling when I see trailers for movies like Contagion. All a real plague has to do to thrive is mainly kill certain kinds of people, and do it at a pace that defeats our national crisis attention span (which grows shorter every year).
posted by hermitosis at 11:00 AM on September 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Obligatory.
posted by fifthrider at 11:09 AM on September 11, 2011


We get sooo excited over major epidemics, both real and fictional, Meanwhile, the death toll from AIDS is predicted to outpace the Black Plague's in our lifetimes.

I guess according to this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_causes_of_death_by_rate
we should place "Unintentional injuries" (whatever that means) as an even higher concern than AIDS. Hell, AIDS at 4.87% is nothing compared to "Infectious and parasitic diseases", at 23.04% of all deaths.
posted by usagizero at 11:10 AM on September 11, 2011


Well, in the scheme of things, AIDS kills people slowly. The plague, meanwhile, got ya good and fast. It's not that AIDS isn't as bad or as important as Parrot Fever or the Black Plague, but it certainly moves more slowly. We have a very poor attention span, it seems.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:12 AM on September 11, 2011


You know, I've never seen a good explanation for the population of feral parrots in Hyde Park, Chicago.

As a side note- at one point while I was living there, I had formulated a plan to capture several of the parrots and train them to verbally denigrate the foundations of different social and economic theories:

"Dialectical Materialism is teleological in nature!"

*squak*

"The Invisible Hand of the Economy is 18th century mysticism!"

*rawk*

"Ideal Types are neither ideal nor typical! Pretty boy!"
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:46 AM on September 11, 2011 [20 favorites]


hermitosis, your point is absolutely right; however, you might remember that when AIDS was new and everyone was scared about it, they acted in pretty horrible ways to avoid contagion, and of course gay people got the brunt of that.

AIDS has now mostly moved into the category of "something possibly fatal I hope I don't get" like cancer and MS, for a lot of people. And we don't really prioritize the health of poor cancer and MS patients either.

Blahblahblah our health system is broken, blahblahblah.
posted by emjaybee at 11:48 AM on September 11, 2011


I guess according to this we should place "Unintentional injuries" (whatever that means) as an even higher concern than AIDS. Hell, AIDS at 4.87% is nothing compared to "Infectious and parasitic diseases", at 23.04% of all deaths.

Yeah, except for literally half of America's current cases are African American, and most of a generation of gay men was lost before most of America caught on to what was happening. So, I guess it really depends on who you mean by "we."
posted by hermitosis at 1:55 PM on September 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


The population of the entire world during the Plague was less than 500million and the plague was much more focused in relatively small geographic regions. You can't compare absolute numbers of deaths for something with localized effects on a much, much smaller population basic. The Plague was a disaster of mammoth proportions for the areas it hit. A decent comparison might be the effects of AIDS specifically on the gay community of San Francisco in the early and mid 1980s. Except faster and affecting everyone.

I think AIDS is horrific enough without having to invoke the specter of the Black Death.
posted by Justinian at 1:59 PM on September 11, 2011


(smaller population BASE, not basic)
posted by Justinian at 1:59 PM on September 11, 2011


I'm glad the article went into detail about the "Microbe Hunters," because I am a microbe hunter. In fact as I type this I'm staring at a pair of microbe antlers mounted on my wall. Be right back....got a freshly-killed microbe tied to the roof of my car that I need to get into the freezer.
posted by mreleganza at 3:54 PM on September 11, 2011


We're so, so bad at assessing relative risk of everyday situations and news stories, especially when it comes to health. I really feel like practical, applied statistics comprehension should really replace some hefty chunk of general math and science education in the US. Maybe throw in a little 101 on financial risk, too. We'd be the better for it.
posted by deludingmyself at 2:33 PM on September 12, 2011


Will the Lack of Paid Sick Days Make Movie Thriller 'Contagion' A Reality?
posted by homunculus at 4:10 PM on September 14, 2011


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