For our upcoming episode on Laughter, we kept coming across references to a 1962 epidemic of contagious laughter in Tanzania. But every scholarly article, every newspaper reference, every mention we found, seemed to just point back to the source - a 1963 article from a medical journal.
As it would happen, I was planning to be in Tanzania in June. Back in 2005, Radiolab had gotten involved with the TED Conference - Jad hosts their audio podcast, and they've brought me or one of our interns to come record the conference a few times. Since I was planning to travel to Tanzania for the June 2007 TED Global conference, we thought, hey, why don't I spend a couple of days poking around to see if I can figure out what happened in 1962?
But where to begin?
With only a few days to turn up people who remember a laughter epidemic in a remote village in Western Tanzania in 1962, how would I find an eyewitness?
I sent a note out to about 200 people. And my email made it's way from Radiolab contributor Laura Starcheski, to her friend Erin, to someone at the World Bank, to someone who works in Bukoba, TZ, to a man named Kurt who lives in Nshamba, TZ and Kurt asked around his office and, voila, we found Gertrude. By my count, that's 6 degrees. (On The Media talked about this phenomena today and noted that the results of the classic Stanley Milgrim experiment have been upheld over and over again.)
Gertrude was herself afflicted with the laughter epidemic in 1962 and when I finally got to meet her, she introduce me to a traditional healer, Mr. Sospita, pictured with me above, who treated her. I wrote about the adventure he had in getting to me over here.