16

The United States is afflicted by a cold- or flu-like disease that has the epidemiologists floored because its distribution is so spotty. In one town practically every adult person comes down with it, but not the children. Children aren't immune, however. Postal employees seem immune to the disease. Fortunately it's not fatal, and it's not obviously contagious, but it keeps spreading. Eventually someone deduces that it is caused by licking postage stamps. The town where the adults all got it had just had a big meeting where they all agreed to write their congressman. And postal employees used a sponge instead of their tongues to moisten stamps. The problem was traced to a single barrel of glue that had gone bad.

Obviously, this story was published long before "lickless" self-adhesive stamps were developed, becoming standard I think in the 1990s. I probably read the story in the 1960s or 70s in an English-language anthology.

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    That doesn't sound very sci-fi or fantasy, just unusual epidemiology? Unless I'm missing something, I think this would be better suited on Literature. – Jenayah Aug 2 at 0:46
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    I am nearly certain that I read it in a science fiction anthology. – Invisible Trihedron Aug 2 at 0:48
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    Hmm. I recall a disaster novel where a scientist bent on revenge did this. But it's buried deep. – Spencer Aug 2 at 2:12
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    Probabaly not scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/203570/… :-D – FuzzyBoots Aug 2 at 3:30
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    That is old-fashioned—both licking stamps and using USPS :P – Stormblessed Aug 2 at 3:50
21

This is "The Plague" by Teddy Keller (apparently the only SF he wrote), published in Analog in 1961 and collected in various Analog anthologies. It's available at the Gutenberg Project here.

Andy glanced at the lab report and his smile was as relieved as it was weary. "Our problem," he said, "was in figuring out what a writer does that a doctor doesn't—why girls from small offices were sick—and why senators and postal workers weren't—why college students caught the bug and people in a Tennessee community didn't.

"The lab report isn't complete. They haven't had time to isolate the poison and prescribe medication. But"—he held up a four-cent stamp—"here's the villain, gentlemen."

The big brass stood stunned and shocked. Mouths flapped open and eyes bugged at Andy, at the stamp.

Bettijean said, "Sure. College kids and engaged girls and new parents and especially writers and artists and poets—they'd all lick lots of stamps. Professional men have secretaries. Big offices have postage-meter machines. And government offices have free franking. And"—she threw her arms around the sergeant's neck—"Andy, you're wonderful."

...

"But there's no evidence it was a plot yet. Could be pure accident—some chemical in the stickum spoiled. Do they keep the stickum in barrels? Find out who had access. And ... oh, the phone call. That was the lab. The antidote's simple and the cure should be quick. They can phone or broadcast the medical information to doctors. The man on the phone said they could start emptying hospitals in six hours. And maybe we should release some propaganda. "United States whips mystery virus," or something like that. And we could send the Kremlin a stamp collection and.... Aw, you take it, sir. I'm pooped."

The general wheeled to fire a salvo of commands. Officers poured into the corridor. Only the brigadier remained, a puzzled frown crinkling his granite brow.

"But you said that postal workers weren't getting sick."

Andy chucked. "That's right. Did you ever see a post office clerk lick a stamp? They always use a sponge."

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    Came here to answer this. It's a better story than that passage implies, too :) – moopet Aug 2 at 7:39
  • @Daniel Roseman: Thank you very much. I recognize the cover of the Campbell anthology Analog 1 (1963), which also contains a favorite story, Lloyd Biggle's Monument. Very likely read it as a library book when I was in my teens. The ISFDB link for The Plague is: isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?2535 – Invisible Trihedron Aug 2 at 12:23
8

This might be The Giving Plague by David Brin

Naturally, all the major epidemiology labs got involved. Les predicted the pathogen would turn out to be something akin to the prions which cause shingles in sheep, and certain plant diseases... a pseudo-lifeform even simpler than a virus and even harder to track down. It was a heretical, minority view, until the CDC Atlanta decided out of desperation to try his theories out, and found the very dormant viroids Les predicted — mixed in with the glue used to seal paper milk cartons, envelopes, postage stamps.

Found with a search for science fiction disease spread by postage stamps

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    A good story, one that I've read before. The scenario matches, but this is just one paragraph from a 1988 story and I recall a whole story written in a more old-fashioned style. Maybe Brin was influenced by the earlier story. – Invisible Trihedron Aug 2 at 4:04

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