Monthly Archives: December 2014

The West Bank Fainting Epidemic

A map of the West Bank.

A map of the West Bank.

Twenty years after the fainting epidemic in Blackburn, a similar outbreak of mystery illness struck the West Bank, an area familiar to most as a site of tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The illness began at 8:00am on March 21, 1983, in the city of Arrabah. A 17 year old secondary school student complained about throat irritation and difficulty breathing when she walked into the classroom. The list of symptoms soon expanded to a headache, dizziness, and stomach pains. School officials allowed her to go home.

But in the two hours after she left, six more students developed a similar set of symptoms. Two of them reported smelling an odor like rotten eggs. This led school officials to contact local public health authorities, who arrived by 10:00am. Suspecting a gas leak or the possibility of a poison gas attack, they immediately tested the air for toxins. They found nothing that could explain the symptoms, but as a precaution they closed the school anyway. For the next three days, locals around the area of the school reported headaches and fainting spells.

The next wave of illness began March 26 and lasted until March 28. It occurred in and around Jenin, which is located in the northern West Bank. It began when locals watched a car drive slowly up the streets, belching out clouds of thick black smoke. The symptoms were identical to the outbreak at Arrabah: headaches, stomach aches, and fainting. Most of those who fell ill were school girls, but all ages and sexes were effected. It is interesting to note that four of the victims were Israeli Self Defense Force soldiers.

The third and final wave of the outbreak struck on April 3 in Hebron, located in the southern sector of the West Bank. After this outbreak, all schools in the West Bank were closed. No more cases were reported afterwards.

 

A War of Words

Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to the news knows that Israel and Palestine are not the best of friends. The conflict between the two nations has raged since the state of Israel was re-established by the UN in 1946. To oversimplify the matter, both sides claimed the land we now call Israel, and the Palestinians who lived there when Israel was established weren’t too happy with the newcomers taking over what they saw as their land. Of course, the Israelis also saw the area as their ancestral homeland.

This has led to a conflict that has raged for decades, characterized by seething hatred, violent clashes, and atrocities committed by both sides. Again, this is a vast oversimplification of the history of a troubled land, but for our purposes it will do. The outbreaks occurred against this backdrop of hatred and animosity, where citizens and soldiers on both sides lived in constant fear for their lives.

The hysteria itself became a part of the war of words between the two sides, as each believed the other was responsible. Palestinian leaders accused the Israelis of using chemical weapons against Arab school girls. In a bizarre leap in logic, they claimed that the alleged attacks were meant to sterilize the adolescents.

Not to be beaten to the punch, some politicians on the Israeli side accused Palestinian extremists of something even more bizarre: launching poison attacks against their own people in order to stir up dissent. Somehow, this was supposed to encourage Palestinians to take to the streets and launch demonstrations against the United States and, for some reason, the Red Cross.

More reasonable officials on the Israeli side – public health officials actually investigating the case – pointed to mass hysteria.

 

Political hysteria

As with the fainting epidemic in Blackburn, officials in Israel could find no physiological cause for the illness. Toxicological and environmental testing showed no results: no toxins, poisons, or any other substance that could cause the reported symptoms. The transitory symptoms, the age groups involved, and the fact that most victims were female all pointed to mass hysteria.

However, the outbreak in the West Bank differs a bit from the fainting in Blackburn because it might well have been caused initially by environmental factors. Remember how two students at Arrabah reported smelling rotten eggs? The stench was traced back to a latrine on the school grounds that was leaking gas; specifically, hydrogen sulfide. The gas can be lethal in high concentrations, but luckily the amounts present at the school that day were not enough to be toxic.

This no doubt pungent odor was the spark that lit the tinder box of hysteria. The girls were living in an environment characterized by political tension and a realistic fear that they might be die a violent death. Less an existential threat, but still a big cause of stress among school age children, was the fact that the schools were preparing for exams around the time the outbreak began.

The outbreak spread to Jenin and Hebron and their surrounding districts by breathless media reports of poisonings in secondary schools. No doubt they also reported on the remarks made by leaders on both sides accusing each other of heinous deeds. In a climate of fear like that, any odd site or smell– a slow moving car with exhaust problems, for example– could trigger an outbreak.

 

Source:

“Epidemic of Acute Illness – West Bank.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The Centers for Disease Control. April 29, 1983, 32(16); 205-208 <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00000068.htm>

 

Shipler, David K. “More School Girls in West Bank Fall Sick.” The New York Times. April 4, 1983 <http://www.nytimes.com/1983/04/04/world/more-schoolgirls-in-west-bank-fall-sick.html>

 

Murphy, Dan. “Mass Hysteria Blamed for Afghan School Girl ‘Poisoning’, Not the Taliban.” CSMonitor.com. July 9, 2012. The Christian Science Monitor. March 7, 2014. <http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Security-Watch/Backchannels/2012/0709/Mass-hysteria-blamed-for-Afghan-schoolgirl-poisoning-not-the-Taliban>

 

Rubin, Trudy. “Poison Controversy is Latest Symptom of Distrust on the West Bank.” CSMonitor.com. April 5, 1983. The Christian Science Monitor. March 7, 2014. <http://www.csmonitor.com/1983/0405/040561.html>

An Epidemic of Fainting in Blackburn, England

Blackburn Cathedral, where the mass hysteria outbreak likely began. "BlackburnCathedralFront" by TreveX - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BlackburnCathedralFront.jpg#mediaviewer/File:BlackburnCathedralFront.jpg

Blackburn Cathedral, where the mass hysteria outbreak likely began. “BlackburnCathedralFront” by TreveX – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BlackburnCathedralFront.jpg#mediaviewer/File:BlackburnCathedralFront.jpg

Mass hysteria has long been one of the more bizarre features of history. Characterized by physical symptoms resulting from the spread of false beliefs, it is an outlet for pent up anxieties that have been building up for months or even years. There are two ways mass hysteria manifests: mass motor hysteria and mass anxiety hysteria.The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic is an example of mass motor hysteria. These outbreaks of mass madness are characterized by bizarre behaviors and odd movements. They were more common in previous centuries, when superstitious beliefs were more widespread, although they can occur in the modern era in third world countries where traditional beliefs still hold sway. The outbreak of mass hysteria that occurred in Blackburn, England only two years after Tanganyika was an example of mass anxiety hysteria, a form of hysteria more typical of outbreaks in modern, industrialized countries.

 

Epidemic fainting

The incident began the morning of Thursday, October 7, 1965 at a girl’s secondary school in Blackburn, England. It began innocuously enough, with some girls complaining about dizziness and generally feeling unwell. A handful fainted.

By noon, girls were dropping over left and right. The worst cases –85 total–were rushed to the hospital by ambulance. The remaining students were dismissed until the following Monday. Most of the girls who were hospitalized were able to return home the same day. Six of them were re-admitted over the weekend. Unlike the case in Tanganyika, were the girls returning home spread the illness to their home communities, the fainting in Blackburn remained confined to the school girls.

But like the case in Tanganyika, closing the school did little to halt the epidemic. When the school reopened on Monday, the fainting spells struck again. This time, 54 girls were hospitalized. Many of them were students who had been admitted during the initial outbreak. Those admitted a second time spent more time in the hospital than those who were newly affected. The majority of girls recovered that afternoon and were able to return home. Even so, school officials shut the school down for the rest of the week.

The school doors opened again the following Monday. The illness reared its head a third and final time. Fifty-six girls complained of symptoms, but no one was rushed to the hospital. No doubt, this response had a role in stopping the illness in its tracks. Afterwards, no other cases of mass fainting came from the school. Life in Blackburn returned to normal.

 

A case of mass hysteria

It is interesting to note that the Blackburn outbreak was one of the few cases where mass hysteria was suspected from the start. Doctors attending to victims of the first outbreak believed most of the girls were suffering hysteria, but that their hysteria was caused when they saw a classmate suffering a real illness.

However, after extensive medical testing performed on hospitalized girls showed nothing more harmful than a mild fever or two, doctors determined nothing was physically wrong with any of them. Food from the cafeteria also underwent a battery of tests, all of which came back negative for any toxins.

Once any biological causes were eliminated, officials turned to mass hysteria as an explanation. The symptoms experienced by the school girls were certainly consistent with most reported cases of mass anxiety hysteria. These included dizziness, headaches, shivering, nausea, hyperventilation, nausea, and of course, fainting.

Another key to the diagnosis of mass hysteria was the way I which the illness spread. It began the first morning of the outbreak with the senior class. But while the seniors were the first affected, their juniors were the worse victimized. Typically in a school setting, the older students are more likely to be imitated by the younger, not the other way around. In other words, their age and physical maturity gives them a higher status in the school hierarchy than their younger peers. One feature of mass hysteria is that it tends to move from higher status members of a social group to the lower status members. This is precisely what happened during the Blackburn outbreak.

 

Origins of the outbreak

TEM image of the polio virus.

TEM image of the polio virus.

Mass hysteria never occurs in a vacuum. Events in the broader society always have an impact on its members. This was the case in Blackburn as well, when a dread illness struck the small city earlier in 1965.

The scourge was polio, a virus largely forgotten in the 21st century but whose threat was still very real in the 1960s. Polio is a highly contagious viral infection that attacks the central nervous system. It mainly affects those under the age of five. About 1 in 200 cases result in irreversible paralysis, and between 5 and 10 percent of victims die when the virus immobilizes the muscles responsible for breathing.

Onset of paralysis can begin within a few hours of infection. Once someone is infected, there is no cure. The only way to stop the disease is by way of vaccine. Use of the polio vaccine has largely eradicated the virus from most of the world and saved millions of lives.

But in 1965, the virus still gripped large swaths of the world, even as health authorities began to use the vaccine to combat it. The disease was rightly feared, and an outbreak could shut down an entire community. Truck drivers and taxis refused to enter Blackburn during the outbreak, and holiday bookings were canceled. The town was in a state of panic, under attack by an invisible assailant it was incapable of combating.

This no doubt made an impression on the girls of the secondary school. There was a very real fear that they could be struck down at any time by the invisible hand of illness. While this made the girls more susceptible to mass hysteria, the actual roots of the illness took hold during a religious ceremony. The school required its students to attend a ceremony at a local Anglican cathedral. The ceremony was under royal patronage, but the royals were running late that day. The students were forced to wait on their arrival for 3 hours. May of them waited outside. During that time, 20 girls fainted. Others felt dizzy or faint but managed to stay upright.

The next morning, there was a lot of excitement around the miniature fainting epidemic. Girls talked in detail about who fainted and speculated as to why. At assembly that morning, the first faints of the actual epidemic began. After assembly, three more girls fell victim, and so did a fourth sent to get them a glass of water. Soon enough, another six students began to show symptoms. These girls were all brought into the hallway to sit or lie down, in full view of other students on their mid-morning class breaks.

After all the excitement of the previous day, the sight of so many of their peers laid out by an unknown cause was enough to tip the whole student body into hysteria, and the Blackburn Fainting Epidemic began in earnest.

 

Sources:

Moss, Peter D. and McEvedy, Colin P. “An Epidemic of Overbreathing Among School Girls.” British Medical Journal. 1966, 2; pgs 1295-1300

“Poliomyelitis.” who.int. April 2013. The World Health Organization. March 5, 2014 <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs114/en/>

 

The Mystery of the Amber Room

The modern reconstruction of the Amber Room.

The modern reconstruction of the Amber Room.

While the Nazis stormed across Europe, their storm troopers raided museums and art galleries, stealing priceless works of art to be taken back to their fatherland to celebrate the greatness of the German Third Reich. Looting during war is nothing new of course; since time immemorial, the victors have stolen valuables from those they’ve defeated. Point of fact, a good argument can be made that theft of land and resources is the point of most wars in the first place. However, the Nazi’s looting was on a massive scale, and most notable for the priceless artworks that were stolen.

Nothing stolen in Western Europe was as precious as the Amber Room. Constructed in the 18th century in Prussia, part of Germany, for the King of Prussia Friedrich I, the room consisted of panels built of amber, backed with gold leaf, and encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones. The opulent room caught the eye of Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, on a visit to Prussia in 1716. Frederick William I, then King of Prussia, gave the Czar the room as a gift, a symbol of Prussian-Russian friendship.

The panels were packed into 18 large boxes and shipped to Russia. They were initially installed in the Winter House in St. Petersburg. There they remained until 1755, when Czarina Elizabeth ordered them moved to the Catherine Palace in Tsarkoye Selo (the Czar’s Village.) The room was renovated by an Italian designer named Bartolomeo Francesco Rastreilli, who used additional amber from Berlin to expand the room in a larger space. These final renovations expanded the Amber Room to cover 180 square feet. Altogether, the work utilized approximately six tons of amber and semi-precious stones. The beautiful room served alternatively as a meditation chamber, a banquet hall, a trophy space, and a museum.

Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union, dubbed Operation Barbarossa, to begin on June 22, 1941. It was an unprecedented military maneuver, both in scale and savagery. Three million Germans streamed into the Soviet Union, shoving back Soviet forces and looting as they went, stealing thousands upon thousands of treasures even as they slaughtered millions and millions of Soviet citizens.

For their part, the Nazis coveted the Amber Room, believing it was made by Germans, for Germans (the work was actually a collaboration between Dutch and German artisans.) Knowing that the Germans would steal the priceless panels, officials at the Catherine Palace on the outskirts of Leningrad (previously known as St. Petersburg) tried to hide them, but found that the amber was beginning to crumble. Instead, the officials put up wallpaper, hoping to disguise the priceless artifact as an ordinary room.

The trick failed. German soldiers tore down the Amber Room within 36 hours. It was packed into 27 crates and shipped to Konigsberg, where it was installed in the Konisberg castle museum, where it remained for the next two years. In late 1943, the room was once again crated up and tucked away. In August 1944, the Allies bombed Konigsberg into the ground, leaving the castle as a heap of ruins. The Amber Room disappeared in the chaos of bombings and the destruction that swept over Germany in the final year of the war. Since then, the priceless work has been lost to history.

Since the chaotic final years of the war, various theories have cropped up seeking to explain what happened to the Amber Room. They range from the obvious to tin-hat level conspiracy. The simplest, most obvious, and therefore most plausible explanation is that the Amber Room was destroyed in during the bombings that leveled Konigsberg in 1944. Given the level of destruction unleashed by the bombings, this explanation certainly makes sense. But others aren’t satisfied to let the mystery end there. Some claim the treasure was hidden somewhere in Konigsberg (now known as Kaliningrad), remaining to be found. Others believe it was loaded on a ship, which was promptly sunk, and now resides somewhere on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Another theory holds that the treasure was shipped to Austria, where it was sunk to the bottom of Toplitz Lake, which is believed to hold other Nazi treasures that were hastily hidden when the war’s endgame became apparent. The most extreme theory veers into the realm of conspiracy. It claims that Stalin had foreseen the German’s desire for the Amber Room and had a dummy version constructed, while the real Amber Room was safely carted away to the Soviet interior.

No one knows for sure. Bits of amber claiming to be from the Amber Room do appear from time to time, but they are difficult to substantiate as legitimate. Cases are still working their way through German courts regarding pieces that owners claim are part of the lost room. It is no wonder though that the mystery of the Amber Room has so intrigued the imagination for the 60+ years since it disappeared. The work is estimated to be worth $142 million in today’s money, an amount that makes any intrepid treasure hunter tempted to take a crack at finding the lost treasure.

For its part, the Soviet Union gave up looking for the lost room in 1979, opting instead to simply rebuild it. This proved to be a tall order, as many of the skills utilized in its construction had to be rediscovered. These included methods for carving and dyeing amber. The project took 25 years and $11 million to complete. Upon completion, the room was dedicated by President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Shroder, becoming once again a symbol of peace between two nations. The replica can be seen at the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve outside of St. Petersburg, Russia. As for the original? More likely than not, no one will ever know for sure. The mystery will remain.

 

Sources:

“Amber Room hunt makes lake the Tsar Attraction.” Scotsman.com. April 15, 2006. The Scotsman. November 4, 2014. http://www.scotsman.com/news/world/amber-room-hunt-makes-lake-the-tsar-attraction-1-1411018

 

Blumberg, Jess. “A Brief History of the Amber Room.” Smithsonianmag.com. July 31, 2007. Smithsonian.com. November 4, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-amber-room-160940121/?all&no-ist

 

Varoli, John. “Amber Room, Lost to War, Is Recreated.” NYTimes.com. January 23, 2000. The New York Times. November 4, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/01/23/arts/art-architecture-amber-room-lost-to-war-is-recreated.html?src=pm&pagewanted=1