Humanity mystifies the unknown, especially those unknown phenomena that endanger, frighten, or bewilder. Often we bestow on such phenomena a kind of morality as well. “God did it to punish us.” “They were sinners and received their due!” “They are constitutionally inferior or degenerate, that’s why!” are oft-heard explanations for the less fortunate among us. These semi-delusional explanations often serve to exploit or oppress fellow humans who are already defenseless and sometimes ill. Alas, the eventual scientific explanation of these phenomena is mundane and startling in its simplicity, devoid of moral teaching or mystification. And the cure: even more simple and straightforward.
In the 1920s and 1930s, over 50 percent of inmates in our overcrowded mental hospitals were black and suffered from a dreaded mental disorder with the characteristic devastating symptoms of the three D’s: dementia, dermatitis (skin lesions), and diarrhea. The malady: Pellagra.
The afflictions were progressive, incurable, mysterious in their cause and, invariably, fatal. “They are moral degenerates!” was often heard, along with “Only blacks are prone to this disease,” the innuendo being that they were the carriers of an unspeakable defect, peculiar to their race, inherited and interwoven in their blackness. The subsequent solution was embarrassingly simple and devoid of irrational thinking or moralistic explanations.
The blacks suffering from Pellagra were poor folks with monotonous diets imposed by circumstances not of their making but of the “Man’s.” Day after day, month after month, year after year, their diet was made up of the three M’s: maize, molasses, and meat (back pork). They were deprived of an important specific biocatalyst, the PP (Pellagra preventing) factor that is abundant in fresh milk and leafy green vegetables. (The PP factor itself is part of the Vitamin B complex, nicotinic acid and its amide, to be exact.)
And the blacks? They ate green vegetables, the mysterious affliction disappeared overnight and so did the moralistic dark explanations. So much for Pellagra and blacks.
And then there was the case of “Lues” or Syphilis. The Italians called it Malafranza. The French repaid the favor by declaring the affliction Mal de Napoliataine. It devastated Europe in the Renaissance with initial virulence akin to typhoid fever. Later it settled into the more traditional chronic forms. It destroyed an excellent French storyteller’s brain, Guy de Maupassant, ended the intellect of a giant philosopher/psychologist, F. Nietzsche, and almost certainly devastated Henry VIII, that elegant, talented artist/polymath, a true prince of the Renaissance. The disease gradually destroyed the brain decades after the first symptoms of infection. It was imbued with moral significance as well.
Inhaling vapors of mercury salts or applying salves of the same, or injecting complicated and potentially deadly arsenic preparations (606) may or may not have arrested the disease and the dreaded syphilitic dementia (tertiary syphilis).
The causative factor: a rather fragile, thin, corkscrew like microbe, know today as treponema pallidum, first cousin of similar but harmless ones found by the millions in the human mouth. The effective treatment: oral intake or injections of putrified extracts of the familiar green mold of stale bread! So much for “Lues.”
And then we had the case of the mariners’ dreaded affliction. It was the scourge of the renaissance mariners in their lovely caravels and brigantines. Their gums were bleeding, their teeth were loose, their organs were hemorrhaging, they were hallucinating and writhing in agony before death. A dreaded mystery, the Scurvy.
Again, hard tack and an endless diet of salted meat were devoid of an important anti-oxidant/biocatalyst, named years later ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), resulting in this dreaded affliction. Fortuitously, ship captains were protected from it by the daily spoonful of cranberry jam (rich in Vitamin C), a jar of which was traditionally given to them at the beginning of a voyage by their loved ones so that they would be remembered in the mornings. This too is now a curiosity of the past hardly even remembered except in the occasional alcoholic, the food faddist, or the neglected child. The cure: a few drops of lemon juice taken daily.
And finally, we have the cases of King Saul (of Biblical fame), Ivan the terrible, Isaac Newton, and untold numbers of the not-so-famous. All were fellow sufferers of a devastating mental affliction with periodic, severe mood swings. Their brains’ regulator of emotional tone (a kind of thermostat) was seemingly out of whack.
The bearers of the affliction, in a high percentage, were and still are in positions of leadership and social importance. Their emotional rages, when manic, play havoc on that leadership. Their bleak, black moods, when they sway to the other side, are a sight to behold in their personal agony and despair. Their predicament was the history of great dramas and lost empires and awe-inspiring stories retold throughout the centuries. The relief: a variant of plain ground rock, lithium salts (lithium being Greek for rock) taken in minute amounts daily which stabilizes the emotional “thermostat” regulator.
The moral of these stories we leave for the reader to ponder and muse.