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Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine's Greatest Mysteries Hardcover – March 2, 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Hardcover; 1 edition (March 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0425225704
  • ISBN-13: 978-0425225707
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,130,742 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

On the heels of World War I, another atrocity emerged to take millions more lives: flu. Overshadowed by that worldwide viral menace was an equally—indeed, Crosby believes, an even more—frightening killer, encephalitis lethargica (EL). If the name rings no bell, perhaps that isn’t surprising, since the malady claimed “only” a million lives, though it left at least that many more permanently disabled, before dropping off epidemiologists’ maps around 1927. The illness’ popular moniker, sleeping sickness, is more familiar, to the point of seeming innocuous. But the disease was and is anything but. No one has ever been able to articulate its etiology. Just because it flared up during a flu pandemic doesn’t mean it is linked to flu by either causation or correlation. Yet the concurrence cannot be discounted. What’s more, the disease is unpredictable, having re-emerged a couple times since the 1920s. Crosby and others fear EL may return simultaneously with another worldwide outbreak of flu. Medical science is, they insist, no better prepared for it than it was 90 years ago. --Donna Chavez


More About the Author

Molly Crosby is an author and journalist ( Her first book, THE AMERICAN PLAGUE: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History, was published in November 2006. The New York Times hailed it as a "first-rate medical detective drama," and Newsweek called it "gripping...highly readable." The book was nominated for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, Border's Original Voices Award, the Southern Independent Booksellers Award, and it was chosen as a New York Times Editor's pick and a Book Sense pick.

Her second book, ASLEEP: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine's Greatest Mysteries, was released in March 2010. Publisher's Weekly called it "riveting," with "remarkable human connection." Kirkus Reviews has called Crosby a "fine storyteller." And Oliver Sacks, author of AWAKENINGS, wrote that, Crosby has written "a brilliant and deeply moving account...." The book was chosen as a reader's pick for Discover and Scientific American magazines.

Crosby's third book, THE GREAT PEARL HEIST, releases November 27, 2012. Set against the backdrop of Edwardian London, it is the true story of a gentleman thief, a Scotland Yard detective and the hunt for the world's most valuable necklace. It has been chosen as an Indie Next List pick for December 2012. It received a starred review from Booklist, and Publishers Weekly called it a "winning true crime tale." "Rich and evocative...Crosby has written a book that is as enchanting and irresistible as its subject." - Candice Millard, author of RIVER OF DOUBT and DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC.

Crosby holds a Master of Arts degree in nonfiction and science writing from Johns Hopkins University and spent several years working for National Geographic magazine in Washington, DC. Her writing has appeared in Newsweek, Health, and USA Today, among others. Crosby has been interviewed on C-SPAN Book TV, NPR's "Morning Edition," The Diane Rehm Show, John Seigenthaler's "A Word on Words," Bloomberg Radio, television news and has given talks around the country, including to the Department of Interior and at various universities and medical schools.

Today, Crosby lives in Memphis with her husband and two daughters. She is currently at work on her next book.

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Customer Reviews

If you're like me and enjoy reading about diseases, you should pick up this book.
Mary Esterhammer-Fic
Although it paints a clear picture as to the time and history when the disease was, its pretty much a history book.
Victoria A.
This book is well written (IMO) and makes an interesting read for a subject that could be dry.
Robin Bailey

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 26 people found the following review helpful By E. Bukowsky HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Molly Caldwell Crosby's "Asleep," traces a strange malady whose origins are shrouded in mystery. Encephalitis lethargica ("a swelling of the brain that makes one sleepy") "came in two waves--the first began in 1916 and peaked in 1920." A second wave struck in 1924. Today, few people remember this scourge that killed closed to a million people all over the world. One of the victims was Crosby's grandmother, Virginia Thompson Brownlee, who became ill in 1929 at the age of sixteen but was fortunate enough to survive with limited long-term effects. Tragically, many of the afflicted were children and young adults whose brains were not yet fully developed; they were not all equipped, physically or emotionally, to battle this destructive illness.

Although the symptoms of encephalitis lethargica varied from one individual to the next, some of the manifestations were: disconnectedness from one's body, lethargy, delirium, slurred speech, stiffness, seizures, tics, Parkinsonism, and extreme personality changes. Some people became catatonic or went into a deep sleep for long periods of time. Around one third recovered, one third died, and one third survived. However, some became so disabled that they were permanently institutionalized. One common thread is that many of the sufferers had recovered from the flu before they came down with encephalitis lethargica. Even those who appeared to have recovered fully were vulnerable to recurrences years later. It was almost as if a demon lay dormant in their bodies, only to reemerge when they least expected it.

Crosby divides her book into seven chapters, each of which recounts a compelling case history, including that of Jessie Morgan, the wife of financier J. P. Morgan.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By J. A. Monfort on April 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
An interview on NPR alerted me to Ms. Crosby's book. I, too, had a grandmother diagnosed and recovered from sleeping sickness. Crosby's investigation shed light on how this disease affected families and how victims were trapped in their own bodies. Having grown up in an era where children didn't ask probing questions of family members, I found this to be a book worth sharing with siblings.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By R. Schultz VINE VOICE on January 14, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Ever since I read Oliver Sacks' fascinating book "Awakenings" about the decades-long deep-freeze that some victims of the 1920's epidemic of encephalitis had been put into - I'd been hoping to find some follow-up book about sleeping sickness itself. Here is that book.

Author Molly Crosby traces some of the history of the disease of encephalitis lethargica (alternately known as "sleeping sickness). She paints a picture of the early part of this century and how World War I, with the crowded, transient conditions it promoted, allowed this strange disease to get a foothold in many urban areas around the world. We're transported back to the New York of the 1920's, its chestnut vendors, trolleys, tenements. We're advanced through some of the Depression years. Crosby includes some astute economic analysis here, finding remarkable parallels between the kinds of indebtedness that triggered the 1929 Depression and our current recession. So this book offers the bonus of providing some very interesting general history about an eventful couple of decades.

The epidemic occurred in the wake of the much more widely documented influenza epidemic of 1918. The Doctors and other medical researchers who devoted themselves to the disease back then were baffled at every turn by the strange twists and turns that this lesser-known companion disease of influenza was capable of taking. Ultimately, the medical community was so frustrated by the disease's inscrutable, protean nature, that when it receded as far as being epidemic - it was shelved and almost forgotten. Crosby returns us to the heyday of encephalitis research.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Kurt A. Johnson TOP 1000 REVIEWER on August 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover
From roughly 1915 to roughly 1926, the world saw an epidemic with strange symptoms. Most sufferers fell into a deep and nearly unbreakable sleep, though other experienced unending insomnia, Parkinson's-like symptoms, and even violent insanity. Neurologists at the time discovered through autopsies that sufferers of the disease experience a swelling of the hypothalamus (in the brain), and labeled the disease Encephalitis Lethargica - which is to say, a swelling of the brain that makes on sleepy.

But, this was a description of the effects of the disease, rather than a description of the cause. This book tells the story of the disease and its effects on the world (Did Woodrow Wilson contract the disease? And, did Hitler?), and it tells the story of the efforts to combat the disease and its effects on the science of neurology.

Overall, I found this to be a very interesting book. As the title suggests, when historic epidemics are discussed, Encephalitis Lethargica never seems to show up, and yet at the time it was quite famous (or infamous). The author does an excellent job of telling the story of the disease, the world it entered, and the effects it had on the world.

I have read a number of books on diseases and epidemics (yeah, my wife thinks it's a weird subject to be interested in), and some are better than others. As for this book, it was interesting from start to finish, and a cracking good read!
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