In the 1930s a wave of premature deaths swept through the children’s wards of hospitals throughout Europe. Children, no matter how comfortable their surroundings or wealthy the hospital, were dying at appalling rates for no apparent reason. And one of the weirdest things was that children in poor hospitals actually fared better.
The mysterious illness was dubbed “hospitalism”, and it had experts stumped. Robert Sapolsky – one of my favourite authors – has a good essay on the medical mystery in his new book Monkeyluv.
Suspecting an infectious disease – the germ theory reigned supreme at the time – doctors isolated children from each other and from excessive contact with the nursing staff. Philosophies of child rearing supported this idea at the time – too much cuddling and kissing were considered detrimental to a child’s development.
So they kept the sick children in peaceful, clean white wards. And the children kept dying – in addition to growing very slowly and suffering a whole host of mental and physical setbacks before doing so.
It turns out the actual cause of their illness was not a virus, bacteria, parasite, or anything else one might expect. It was the lack of physical contact the children received from anybody around them. They were literally dying of loneliness. (Which explains why kids in poorer hospitals didn’t die so quickly – they often had to bunk up in crowded wards.)
Physical and emotional comfort is so integral to human existence that you literally waste away without it. We – like all other mammals – are programmed to need it.
Something to keep in mind. Especially when a story like this crosses your path: two baby orangutans and two baby tigers – all four abandoned by their mothers at birth – have become inseparable friends.
The fact that the natural enemies – these are Sumatran tigers, moreover – are clearly so delighted to be next to each other is a testament to the fact that love is something mammals have evolved to have. To need. It’s not just painfully adorable – it’s scientifically relevant.
Seriously – look at how happy this little guy is:
You feel happy for him just looking at this picture.
If this isn’t cute enough, I have to draw your attention to one of my favourite guilty pleasures – a short photoblog of a rabbit and deer somewhere in Germany that adore each other. And unlike the tigers and orangutans, they won’t eventually have to be separated. A real life Bambi and Thumper.