The Case of the Frozen Addicts

by J. William Langston, M. D., and Jon Palfreman. Pantheon, 320 pages, $25.00.
Dr. Langston, a neurologist, was at work at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in 1982 when he encountered an inexplicable patient. The man was motionless, like a victim of Parkinson’s disease, but he was improbably young for Parkinson’s, and the attack had other unreasonable aspects. With some luck and some help from the medical bush telegraph, Dr. Langston discovered five similar cases, all people who had taken one of the “designer drugs” available to addicts. The doctor succeeded in thawing them out, but their troubles were not over and his had merely begun. The account of the affair and its consequences, written in the third person for good reasons, is much more than a medical detective story. It expands into professional rivalries and alliances, government finance for research and government obstruction of the same, ethical debates, overlooked data, and overpriced drugs. After word got out that a chemical known as MPTP might be useful in research on Parkinson’s, the price of that previously trivial substance rose in two years from $11.00 for five grams to $9,500.00. In addition to enjoying what amounts to a lively interprofessional melodrama, the reader learns a great deal about Parkinson’s disease, the extremely delicate work required to study and treat it, and the unexpected side issues of research —such as how to house a bonanza of monkeys. This medical narrative is as absorbing a tale as one could ask for.