The ‘sleeping’ or ‘sleepy’ sickness that swept the world in the 1920s had nothing in common with the tropical disease. It was a strange form of encephalitis which attacked the brain, leaving victims speechless and unable to move. It was named Encephalitis lethargica – ‘inflammation of the brain that makes you tired’. Its cause remains a mystery, though research continues and isolated cases still occur. One theory is that it is triggered by an excessive immune response to bacteria. At the time it was thought to be connected with the Spanish flu pandemic, and some current research points to a viral infection.
The epidemic began as early as 1915, though most cases were reported in the 1920s. It could affect anyone, but was most common in young people, particularly women. Early symptoms of fever, sore throat and headache were quickly followed by double vision, tremors, delayed response, then drowsiness and lethargy; many patients became comatose and completely unresponsive. And many of those who survived remained in a coma fear months or years.
Those who appeared to make a recovery often went on to develop a form of Parkinson’s disease, with unpleasant and permanent symptoms. In 1969, a newly developed anti-Parkinson’s drug, Levodopa (L-Dopa) was used to treat some of the comatose patients. A number made dramatic recoveries, regaining movement and speech after 30 years of unconscious immobility. Most slipped back into coma within days or weeks, and could not be roused again. Dr. Oliver Sacks was working in the USA at the time and his 1973 book Awakenings (later a film) examines the case histories of these tragic living statues.
The mystery epidemic came to an end in 1928. But by that time hundreds of thousands were permanently institutionalized, trapped inside useless bodies.
When was the Sleeping Sickness Epidemic: 1915-1928
Where was the Sleeping Sickness Epidemic: Worldwide
What was the Sleeping Sickness Epidemic death toll: Possibly up to a million, with countless others condemned to living death
You should know: One theory links ‘sleeping sickness’ with the Salem witch trials in New England in the 1600s. Many of the symptoms described in the ‘bewitched’ are strikingly consistent with those of the victims of Encephalitis lethargica.