I first posted this poem in 2018, after watching a dramatic series about real bacteriologists in Germany, who fought to vanquish cholera through the scientific method, in 1888, and won the Nobel prize for it. There are many parallels to today’s situation and the race to find a vaccine for coronavirus, from the fierceness of the foe, to the determination of the scientists, to the swirl of injustice, pseudoscience, prejudice, inequity and violence, surrounding and infusing every heroic moment. Let us hope that science will lead us out of this mess, too!
This poem is inspired by a program named Charite. It is a miniseries on Netflix in German with subtitles. It portrays bacteriologists in the year 1888, told from the point of view of a young assistant nurse, who has the grand dream of also becoming a doctor. It takes place in Prussian Berlin, and addresses class, sexism, white supremacy and antisemitism, as well as anti-scientific mindsets.
When the rich enjoy the Beaux-Arts
And the poor are scraping by;
And we touch the hem of Science
And, triumphantly, we cry;
When we women hold the Joker,
While the men hold all the cards;
And they battle, knightly, for their spawn,
Yet put them in our charge;
When a woman must be seen, not heard,
Or not allowed at all;
And attract men, like a flower,
Hold her posture, lest she fall
By some false move, off the cliff face
Separating those perched high
From the refuse, earning no respect,
No matter how they try:
The poor, the Jews, loose women,
Add the “colored” to this lot;
And all the rest can burst with pride,
Considering what they’re not;
For being “better” has its joys,
When race is proof of worth,
And all the blond and blue-eyed boys
Can revel in their birth,
And need not do a thing besides,
But cruelly mock the crowd
Of “lesser” beings in their midst,
Which makes them feel more proud;
When skeptics scoff at Science,
And measure off the brain
In ounces and in inches
Of Intelligence contained;
When we must bow, most humbly,
To tyrannical regimes
Who flourish finance fickly,
Destroying all our schemes;
In such times, overmuch times,
When, at once, there’s wealth and need,
Well, in such times lived four doctors,
And in such times, too, live we.
All four of them did medicine,
And though they all saved souls,
These two were “great”, this one forgot,
Though three held their Nobels;
Each one fought for Humanity,
Against a tiny foe.
But one was paid and married well,
Another spinstered, poor,
And yet, she volunteered her time,
When none would pay her wage.
What nobleness was in this one
With no prize on the stage!
As corpses lay around them,
And Death’s sickle held its sway,
These four were vanguard in the fight,
As we must be today,
When all the world is busy
And obsessed with paltry things.
For even the healthy folk succumb,
When Contagion spreads its wings.
Copyright 2018 Andrea LeDew
For another poem on the horror of infectious disease entering into and taking over a population, read Horseman. For more election posts, see Sixty Days.
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