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by William H. Benson

March 14, 2002

     Infectious disease is one of the great tragedies of living things.  It is a pitiless war–one species against another in a life-and-death struggle for existence.  Nature seems to have intended that her creatures feed one upon another.  A cow eats a plant, a man eats both of them, and a bacteria eats the man.  It is ironic that the human, the highest and most advanced of the biological forms, suffers from the relentless onslaught of the lowest and simplest forms–bacteria and viruses.

     Malaria, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, small pox, syphillis, and countless other horrendous germs have determined the fates of nations, the outcomes of wars, the movements of armies, and the progression of civilizations.

     For example, in the fourteenth century Yersennia pestis jumped on the backs of fleas that had already hitched rides on rats, and that single bacteria killed off a fourth or more of Europe’s human population.  The bubonic plague, or the black death, swelled the lymph glands and brought on fever and chills and open sores, and then swiftly its victims expired.

     In the very early years of the seventeenth century, European fishing vessels stopped for water and supplies on the North American coastline and dropped off small pox and measles, for which the Native Americans had little resistance.  So decimated were the Natives that by 1620 when the Pilgrims landed, the vast majority of those Native Americans lay in their graves.

     We are now some twenty years after the first appearance of HIV/AIDS.  And today more than 8000 people will die from AIDS, and another 13,000 more will take out a contract with the virus.  Health officials estimate that some 40 million people are today infected worldwide.  This is an epidemic of global proportions.

     However, even an indirect attack can turn just as fatal.  Consider Ireland.  By 1841 the population there had reached 8.2 million, far too many people who were far too dependent upon one crop, the potato.  And the rural Irish peasantry was considered the poorest in Western Europe, “the very extreme of human wretchedness.”

     Then, in the second week of September of 1945 someone noted a fungus on the potatoes in a garden near Cork.  That fungus, Phylophthora infestans, choked out the potato crop six years in a row.  Farm incomes collapsed.  Laborers, farmers, and landlords blamed each other, and all three turned for relief to the British government which was ill-prepared to offer help. Starvation and famine and massive numbers of deaths, once only an eventuality, overwhelmed the poor Irish peole and became an unfortunate reality.

     Charles Greville, the English secretary to the Privy Council, summed up the prevailing English view:  “The state of Ireland is to the last degree deplorable, and enough to induce despair: such general disorganisation and demoralisation, a people with rare exceptions besotted with obstinacy and indolence, reckless and savage–all from high to low intent on doing as little and getting as much as they can, unwilling to rouse and exert themselves, looking to this country for succour, and snarling at the succour which they get; the masses brutal, deceitful and idle, the whole state of things contradictory and paradoxical.”

     And so the people packed their meager belongings and moved in a mass migration to America.  The population of Ireland during those years fell by 2 million–half by excess deaths and half by migration.  It was said at the time that “the only place in Ireland where a man can make a fortune is in America.”  And some, such as Joseph Kennedy, the son of an Irish immigrant, did just that.

     The population continued to drop until by the turn of the century it was at 4 million, a more reasonable number.  Commentators have noted that Ireland after the Great Famine was probably a more sober, prudent, and less festive place.  The few who could speak Gaelic, the Irish language, chose not to, regarding it as bad luck, and the young people have wisely deferred marriage until middle age for fear of ever overpopulating the land again.

     A simple life form, a fungus, attacked a plant, the potato, and a million Irish died too early.

     “Ah, it’s the luck of the Irish,” which is to say that it is only the bad kind.  Do we dare try to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?