I have been sick for several days now. My doctor says it’s a flu. On Wednesday she prescribed some medications—mostly ameliorative—and said that if I was not feeling better by Monday I should call her again. I laughed inwardly at that. Of course I’ll be better by Monday! Now it’s Saturday, and I’m not sure. I missed most of the week of work, the most I’ve ever missed work in my whole life.
Outside today is beautiful. The sun shines, the birds sing, the leaves on trees shiver in a light breeze. It is so unfair, after waiting so long for spring, to feel this poorly when it arrives. I hear again and again that this flu is ‘going around.’ This is something people always say. I swear that I could tell someone I had broken out in green boils that explode at random, and they would say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s going around.’
I don’t think the CDC had very good luck with its flu vaccine this year. It’s always largely guesswork on their part exactly what flu virus they’ll be fighting. There are many flu viruses, and due to something in their mitochondria, which I can’t remember well enough to explain and I’m too groggy with fever right now to research, they are fast-mutating. So the doctors at the CDC make an educated guess, produce several million doses, and then, as often as not, a different virus hits the population.
The added problem this year has been this very late emergence of a new flu virus. The causes for that are probably complex, bringing many factors into play, and will probably never be fully understood. So we blame the weather. That’s right. This second emergence of influenza is due to the fact that the weather has been so wonky. Cold one day, hot the next, et cetera, et cetera. Ascribing illness to the weather is as old as the study of medicine itself.
Hippocrates is known in history as the father of medicine. He was unique in his time for trying to discern the causes of illness, removed from common myth-making. Your cancer was not a curse from Hera, your leprosy was not the wrath of Poseidon made manifest. But Hippocrates did not have the benefit of the scientific method to work with. His ‘science’ was mostly what they used to call inductive philosophy: look at the symptom and think about it and try to figure out what causes it. This was a huge step in the right direction, but his conclusions were often little better than the traditional explanations of illness.
Hippocrates believed there were four substances, or ‘humors’ in the body, which contributed to a person’s physical well-being: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Imbalances in these humors, which were controlled by the seasons, led to illness and disease. Perhaps the idea of seasonal influence on health did not originate with Hippocrates. His contemporary, the somewhat older historian Herodotus, wrote of the Egyptians that they were the healthiest of people because they did not experience the seasonal influence. ‘For illnesses fall upon people when they experience changes of all kinds,’ he wrote in his Histories, ‘but especially changes of weather.’ The Christian scholar The Venerable Bede, writing over a thousand years later in The Reckoning of Time, still references these humors, calling man a microcosm, a small universe in himself and thus subject to seasonal variations in health.
And in case you think that we have lost this kind of fascination with the seasons as the cause of illness, let’s not forget there are still many people who believe that you can catch a cold by being cold. I mean, how many screwball comedies of the mid-twentieth century hung on the assumption that two people who get caught in the rain will be sneezing and coming down with colds in the next scene? (Oh dear, let’s get you out of those wet things!)
I guess when people are miserable it’s nice to be able to attach blame to something. Rather blame the weather than the co-worker who showed up to work with a cold and spread germs everywhere. Spring is supposed to be the season of blood, the humor which controls youth, vigor, and vitality. It’s not the season of phlegm, which is associated with common cold, allergy, and influenza. But when the seasons criss-cross, and you don’t know if it’s winter or spring, all the phlegmy humor gets mixed in with the bloody humor and watch out!