'The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery'

Treacle is a diaphoretic, which means it makes the recipient sweat, the last thing a sufferer of fatal familial insomnia needs. And while the viper flesh likely had no effect, the opium with which treacle was laced certainly would have. The phrase "treacle sleep" appears in several European languages to mean a deep, dreamless sleep, but the opium in the doctor's brain would not have brought about that result. He would no longer have had the capacity in his brain for sleep, because prions had eaten it away. The opium would have eased his pain for a period, dulling the horror of what he experienced, but his eyes would have remained open.

After the treacle passed from his system, he would have been worse off than before, his servants having to hold his arms and legs down to keep him from twitching and jerking out of bed. Perhaps his wife would have given them permission to tie him down. Mutely, the doctor would have watched them do it.

All the same his colleagues would have declared themselves satisfied; the treacle had helped reduce their friend's phlegm: you had only to look at how sweaty he was. And from a professional point of view, who could fault them if the patient died, as he surely would soon? They had encountered a challenging case and devised a therapy, the best one available to them. And while medicine had progressed in the past century and would progress in the next, they were just men. Now it was the priests' turn. In 1770, a man named Giuseppe was born in the Veneto. It is not clear exactly how he was related to the doctor; the family name was common by the eighteenth century, and citizens bearing it were "spread all over Venice," according to a contemporary document, but he may have been his nephew.

Giuseppe grew up in the doctor's country villa and may have inherited it at some point, though later he moved to a nearby town. He was a rural noble, a sir, a man of property. He did not get to enjoy his privileged life for long, though. When he was in his late twenties, revolutionary France invaded Venice. Napoleon declared the Venetian Republic a meritocracy and suddenly everyone -- patrician, doctor, lawyer, gondolier -- became simply "cittadino." No sooner however had Venice accepted "Liberta Virtu Eguaglianza" than Napoleon traded the city to the Austrians for Belgium and Lombardy. Again the Venetians adjusted. "A Venetian law lasts but a week," one noble famously noted. Quickly the Venetians exchanged their red leggings, collars, and gloves (red was the color of the revolution) for black ones (the color of piety) and met the Austrians in the Piazza San Marco to celebrate mass for the Catholic emperor. Nine years later, Napoleon, now an emperor himself, was back; the Venetians put up his statue and a gilded "N" in Piazza San Marco, only to pull both down after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The victors of that battle, Austria, Britain, and Prussia, gave Venice back to Austria, which ruled it for another fifty years -- except during a liberal insurrection in 1848 -- until it was absorbed by the new nation of Italy.

The days when a Venetian would crush his wife's pearls sooner than appear to bow before a foreign king were over. The great powers fought constantly on Venice's doorstep, carried off its grain, and blockaded its ports. Venice, bereft of its territories, suffered an economic collapse so severe it took a hundred years to recover.

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