There is a tradition of underestimating the nastiness of measles. It has never had the bad publicity it deserves, or been represented in the canon of 'plague literature': it has never featured in a Decameron or a Magic Mountain or a Death in Venice or attracted a Defoe or a Camus. Its victims, mostly children, have gone to their early graves anonymously, so there have been no stories to tell. As for the researches and discoveries of the scientists who have worked on it, they have failed to stimulate celebratory writings for the general public, despite their importance, their originality and their elegance. Rabies has Louis Pasteur, smallpox has Edward Jenner. Who has heard of Peter Panum? Even the book about the institution where he spent most of his career, S.E. Stybe's Copenhagen University: Five Hundred Years of Science and Scholarship (1979), while acknowledging his importance as a founder of modern physiology, fails to mention his study of the 1846 measles epidemic in the Faroe Islands. Not only did this investigation set the standard for all subsequent epidemiological work, it settled once and for all that measles is a specific contagion, as well as demonstrating how easily it spreads, accurately establishing its incubation period, and showing the lifelong immunity conferred by infection. Panum found that the 98 survivors of the previous Faroes epidemic were still immune, even though they had been infected in 1781, and that of the 5000 inhabitants exposed to infection, 99.5 per cent caught the disease.
LRB 8 July 2004 | PDF Download