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Colds: We've Put Men On The Moon...

by J.H. Hacsi

  Doctors transplant other people’s organs into us. We send unmanned explorers to Mars that send back information. We communicate with each other across vast distances with lightning speed. Yet we don’t seem able to banish the common cold.

Colds have afflicted the human race for millennia. They are described in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Do they have such a long history with us because they serve a useful purpose?

If so, we are playing with fire. Though colds in themselves never kill us, they can lead to infections that can kill. In the 19th Century we lost a newly elected president this way.

March 4, 1831,was inaugural day for the newly elected, ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison, a retired general nicknamed Tippacanoe in honor of a famous battle he had won. The president-elect had arrived in the capital a few days early and on March 1st he went for his usual morning walk.

According to contemporary accounts, the newly elected president walked unattended, bowing to some he passed, shaking hands with others, occasionally cracking jokes. For one observer, this lack of ceremony in the young republic was “a sublime moral spectacle.”

Harrison had celebrated his sixty-eighth birthday earlier that year and was the oldest man ever elected to the presidency. This record stood until Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 at the age of sixty-nine.

March 4th dawned cold and clear, with a chilly wind blowing in. Cannon saluted the dawn and bands played. A group of Whig supporters had provided a fine coach for the president-elect but he chose to ride his favorite mount, Old Whitey, down Pennsylvania Avenue. Despite the cold, Harrison wore no overcoat and carried his hat in his hand as he waved to the crowd.

Just before noon, the new vice president was sworn in in a crowded senate chamber and then everyone moved to an outdoor platform. Supreme Court judges, cabinet members and diplomats all took their places before a shivering crowd of citizens.

Still bareheaded and without overcoat or gloves, Harrison launched into his speech, the longest one yet given by any newly elected president. As a check against presidential power, he suggested that the president be restricted to one term. A too passionate spirit of party loyalty was deplored and the need for national unity stressed.

The audience felt that the speech was a fine one, though far too long. Even the new president’s Democratic opponents conceded that Harrison was a man of sincerity, integrity and patriotism. Chief Justice Taney administered the oath of office and Harrison waved an affectionate farewell to the crowd.

Within a few months the myth sprang forth that, with the chilliness of the day, the president’s light clothing and lengthy speech, he had caught cold during the inaugural ceremony. This myth is still being circulated on the Internet but the facts don’t bear it out. Harrison showed no signs of having a cold for three weeks after he became president.

The new administration took office. Day after day the White House was filled with people asking for, or demanding, appointments or other favors. One assembled crowd refused to leave when ordered to. Finally Harrison agreed to accept their written requests and eventually the lower rooms were cleared.

The new president took an early morning walk each day to the market, where he purchased food and then walked back to the White House. Three weeks into his administration, he was caught in a sudden shower while out walking. Soon thereafter he came down with a cold. During the evening of March 27th a physician was sent for. Due to the president’s advanced age, he escaped being bled.

After a week spent in bed, the president felt better but soon relapsed. In a stupor, delirious, he complained, in great agitation, that what was happening was not right. He could not consent to everything his friends and supporters wanted. It was wrong. Would their demands never cease? He couldn’t stand it, could not bear it. He pleaded to be left alone.

Harrison died on the morning of April 4th, a victim of pneumonia that began with a cold, his presidency at an end thirty-one days after his inauguration, the shortest in our history. Did his deep anger and resentment help trigger his death?

Our inability to cure the common cold is not due to a lack of effort. In 1946 Christopher Howard Andrewes, an English doctor, launched a determined assault. He became the first director of the Salisbury Common Cold Research Unit near Salisbury, England. Volunteers were lured to the facility so the staff could study the transmission of colds. By 1970 more than seventeen thousand volunteers had visited Salisbury.

Researchers soon learned that it wasn’t easy to infect volunteers. Housing those who had colds with healthy volunteers rarely worked. Subjecting the volunteers to cold, wet conditions did not work. Injecting the rhinovirus directly into volunteers worked only 35 to 40% of the time. The majority of those injected, 60% to 65%, apparently told the virus to “Get lost!” as they remained healthy.

There is no indication that the researchers ever turned to psychological profiles to see if there was any difference in the emotional makeup or mind-set of those volunteers who gave in to the virus compared to those who didn’t.

Current research has shown that people who are “loners,” who have few social contacts, are four times more likely to come down with colds than those who have friends. Another study showed that frequent sexual contact protects against colds.

Medical researchers claim that catching a cold is not a symptom of a lowered immune system. Healthy people with fully functioning immune systems come down with colds. Is there a mind-set at work here that makes healthy people willing, on occasion, to cough, sneeze and spit phlegm out at the world?

If colds are unconsciously felt to be a safe way to release anger, we may keep them around forever.


Excerpted from Plagues Past and Present, A Mind/Body/Approach by J. H. Hacsi. Paper, $14.

Available at Baker and Taylor, www.Amazon.com or on order from any bookstore.


Author Bio.

J. H. Hacsi graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and earlier in her life wrote short stories (over 200 published) and romance novels (eight published). Throughout her life she has been greatly interested in history and science, also the role of the mind and mysticism and has read widely in these fields. She is a widow with five sons and five grandchildren and lives in Claremont, CA.


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