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America’s Mental Health Crisis: Does Coffee Cause Yellow Fever?
Missing the Obvious When It Bites You on the Nose
I understand that not all my readers possess my elite medical training, so let’s start with some basics.
This is a mosquito:
This is a coffee bean:
One, and only one, of the above is responsible for the spread of yellow fever. Can you hazard a guess?
If you fingered the skeeter, you are correct.
If you blamed your iced venti latte, I’m afraid you’re way off, but take heart: you’re in excellent company.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, the Pennsylvania Hippocrates, had thirteen biological children, which is no mean feat, yet his metaphorical progeny are even more impressive: he is widely honored as the father of American psychiatry, the father of American medicine, and a Founding Father of our nation itself. Rush, whose professional honors are too numerous to list, was the most influential American doctor of his time.
He also believed that yellow fever was spread by coffee.
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This was no minor point. When the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 hit Philadelphia, then America’s capital, it killed at least ten percent of the city’s population, while countless others (including most of the doctors!) fled for their lives. Rush did not flee. He labored heroically, night and day, to treat the sick, even as many of his own assistants perished from the disease. A disease he famously insisted was spread through the “noxious fumes” of a shipment of rotting coffee beans at the local wharf.
Dr. Rush treated yellow fever patients the way he treated almost all his patients – by bleeding and poisoning them. This brilliant doctor and dedicated medical professor fervently believed that all diseases were caused by irregularity in the blood, so the obvious treatment was to a) get out as much of that bad blood as possible and b) give high doses of mercury to compel patients to, er, expel irregularities by other means (think back to your worst bout of food poisoning, or to Linda Blair in The Exorcist). As this entertaining overview of his life and career puts it, “Rush estimated that the average person contained 25 pounds of blood and recommended that up to 80% be removed.” I don’t know whether he ever put a precise number on how many pounds of intestinal lining to remove; I suppose it’s more of an art than a science.
Considering that his methods likely killed far more people than he ever helped, I hope you will forgive some of Rush’s contemporaries for not being devoted admirers. When Rush praised mercury as the Samson of medicine, one Biblically literate critic (you can tell it was the 18th century) retorted,
In his hands and those of his partisans it may indeed be justly compared to Samson: for I verily believe they have slain more Americans with it than ever Samson slew of the Philistines. The Israelite slew his thousands, but the Rushites have slain their tens of thousands.
Now, I’m not here to ridicule Rush, honest. He was a genius, the youngest-ever graduate from Princeton, an intellectual and humanitarian dynamo, a superhumanly brave and dedicated physician, and truly a giant of American history.
He just looks like an idiot to us because we know that smelly coffee doesn’t cause yellow fever. You can lock down all the Starbucks in the world, it won’t stop the spread. We also understand today that most diseases are not worsened by your blood’s stubborn insistence on remaining within your arteries. No matter how much you bleed your patient with pneumonia, if they survive it will be despite your best efforts.
What does this apparent contradiction – dedicated, brilliant physician and ridiculous, bloodletting angel of death – teach us? Well, it doesn’t matter how smart or well-meaning you are, if you are working from mistaken assumptions you may go down in history as the villain of the story.
Professor Esolen, in this must-listen speech for any parent, reminds us of the famous line from Augustine’s Confessions: “[Lord,] you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” The professor, speaking of the great literature we ought to share with our children, elaborates: “if that’s true, if our hearts must necessarily be restless until they rest in Him, then the stories we tell will be radically deficient if they are cut off from that intimate dimension of our being.” I, speaking not of our literature but of our ongoing mental health crisis, elaborate further: if our hearts are made to be restless until they rest in Him, no bottle of Prozac, no session of group therapy, will ever give you peace, apart from Him.
There remains to this day no treatment for yellow fever. If we avoid epidemics like the one that decimated Philadelphia in 1793, it’s not because Dr. Rush’s successors figured out just the right dose of mercury to give sufferers. It’s because others were able to see the issue from a new angle and realized that mosquitos, not macchiatos, were to blame. Rest easy, you can drink your morning roast mask-free.
With your yellow fever fears allayed, turn instead to those among us suffering from mental illness – at a far, far higher rate than ten percent. How many more lives will have to be ruined by depression, suicide, loneliness, hopelessness, and other skyrocketing measures of misery before we too make an effort to see the issue from a new angle? Maybe continuing with medicine as usual and bleeding the patient more and more – or, in our modern day version of Dr. Rush’s folly, drugging a quarter of the population with mind-altering pharmaceuticals – is not the answer. Maybe we need to realize that our patients have souls, not just bodies, and that no amount of Big Pharma bloodletting will be able to counteract graphs like this:
You might reply that mercury and bloodletting do not work, whereas Zoloft does. Yes, anti-depressants and anxiety meds often do help you feel less sad and anxious. My response: that’s what makes them even more dangerous than the failed remedies. They are dangerous precisely because they work. What do I mean? Return to Augustine. If he is right, then your heart is restless until it rests in the Lord. Faced with such cardiac agitation, you have two potential resolutions:
1. Mask the restlessness with medicine the rest of your life and die without ever knowing true peace
2. Struggle with the restlessness until you are broken, battered, and overthrown by joy
Every person you encourage to choose door number one is one you are directing all the farther from the peace that surpasses all understanding. I do not speak of these matters lightly. I was there. I thank God every day that, when I hit bottom, the modern secular mental health machine never got its pharmacological claws in me, so I was left to be saved by the only one who can truly save.
To be extra clear for those in the back, I am not saying the Bible denies the existence of depression or anxiety. Quite the opposite – miserable, hopeless, worried, wretched people can be found throughout scripture. It’s just that Job, and Solomon, and Jesus himself do not push prescriptions as the pathway out of despair, but point us to the heavens instead.
When we forget that lesson and turn our back on God, as our medical establishment certainly has, well, we are in danger of looking as ridiculous as poor Dr. Rush, chasing infectious coffee beans as he ignores the mosquitos buzzing at his ears.
Remember the brilliant Dr. Rush’s edifying example, and don’t get cocky. In a couple hundred years, a whole lot of us will look like idiots to our descendants (“they wore how many masks while driving”?). Chesterton wrote wisely about honoring our predecessors, what he called the democracy of the dead. I would add to honor your descendants, and try not to become a laughingstock of the yet-to-be-born. It is one thing, like Rush’s critics, to be mocked by your contemporaries; it is quite another, like Rush himself, to be mocked by generation after generation after generation to come.
Be charitable with skeptics, too. The critic who correctly attacked Rushites for killing thousands was found guilty of libel and fined the largest judgment in Pennsylvania history. Now that we know he was right all along, I don’t think Pennsylvania will give him that money back with interest. Learn from that court’s error and don’t rush to yell “disinformation” at those who disagree with today’s bloodletting (or handwashing!) consensus.
I hope you found something useful in this post, thank you for reading. The next time your doctor ends your fifteen minute visit with some Zoloft product placement, ask her whether she thinks her mocha latte causes yellow fever. And if you aren’t sure who will be laughing at whom in the centuries to come, here’s a safe bet: the word of the Lord endures forever.
May the Lord bless you and keep you and give your heart rest, and I hope you have a wonderful week!