Category Archives: Bubonic Plague

Bleach, bonfires and bad breath: the long history of dodgy plague remedies



Hippocrates refusing the gifts of Artaxerxes. Engraving by Raphael Massard, 1816.
Wellcome Images, CC BY-NC-SA

David Roberts, Birmingham City University

When a future researcher compiles a list of sayings of US presidents, this one from Donald Trump in April 2020 about using bleach as a possible treatment for coronavirus will surely make the cut: “Is there a way we can do something, by an injection inside or almost a cleaning?” Trump’s words prompted panicky warnings from bleach manufacturers to people not to drink their product and a spike in phone calls to help lines.

Press outlets leapt to describe Trump as a “mountebank – an itinerant quack doctor parading his wares from a platform (in Italian classic comic theatre, or Commedia Dell’Arte, the character is typically called Charlatano). In Ben Jonson’s 1606 comedy, Volpone, the eponymous hero dresses as Scoto of Mantua, purveyor of Scoto’s Oil. The original “snake oil”, it’s more expensive than bleach but neither harmful nor, indeed, beneficial if ingested.

Perhaps the comparison is unfair. Trump has simply joined the long line of those who, desperately seeking real cures, have found fakes. In Athens in 430BC, an epidemic struck. The air was thought to be diseased and in need of cleansing. The ancient Greek “father of medicine” Hippocrates himself is said to have come up with a solution – light bonfires, throw herbs and spices on them, and wait for the infection to pass.

Two thousand years later, bonfires were still in fashion. At the onset of the Great Plague in 1665, the College of Physicians pronounced that:

Fires made in the Streets, and often with Stink-Pots, and good Fires kept in and about the Houses of such as are visited … may correct the infectious Air.

The college added that the “frequent discharging of Guns” would have the same effect – something that might appeal to the US president’s more ardent supporters.

But in 1665, not everyone could agree on what to burn. Should it be coal or wood? If wood, was it better to burn a more aromatic variety such as cedar or fir? The author of Golgotha (identified only as J.V.), one of a large number of plague books published in 1665, denounced as “a costly mischief” the burning of “sweet-scented Pomanders”. That did not stop him from recommending instead “Wormwood, Hartshorn, Amber, Thime or Origany”.

But hang on. It was already a hot summer in 1665. Wouldn’t all those fires warm up the infected air and cause the plague particles to multiply? Not necessarily. There were two kinds of heat, according to the 1666 work Loimographia, by 17th-century apothecary William Boghurst. There was the fierce, dry sort generated by fires in chilly northern climates, and there was the soggy, exhausting sort you found in the tropics. The former was cleansing. The latter opened the pores and made you susceptible to infection (as well as lazy and deserving enslavement).

Smoke to your good health

If this all seems like the effusion of bad science and worse ideology, consider tobacco. Recently it was reported that smokers might be less prone to catching COVID-19 (although other evidence suggests smoking makes the disease worse).

The idea of tobacco as protective has a distinguished heritage. Another treatise of 1665 recommends tobacco as “a good Fume against pestilential and infected air”, said to be effective for “All Ages, all Sexes, all Constitutions, Young and Old … either by chewing in the leaf, or smoaking in the Pipe.” On June 7 1665, the diarist Samuel Pepys was so unnerved by the sight of an infected house that he bought “some roll-tobacco to smell and to chew, which took away my apprehension”. It would later be claimed that no tobacconist died during the Great Plague.

Like Trump – but without the benefit of modern science – the bonfire lighters and tobacco chewers grasped the shadow of reality. So did the professors of heat.

Fleas carry diseases including the plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.
Janice Haney Carr via Shutterstock

Since 1894 and the identification of the bacillus Yersinia pestis, we have known that bubonic plague was largely transmitted by fleas. Well, certain odours may deter some types of flea. And the bacillus can survive for up to a year given the right combination of warmth and humidity.

What about transmission? Physicians in 1665 struggled with distinct sets of symptoms and chances of survival. How was it that some people developed buboes over many days and had a 25% chance of recovery, while others without evident symptoms suddenly keeled over?

They named the cause “the fatal breath”. Pulmonary or pneumonic plague, we say now. It is caught like coronavirus or a common cold: the only form of the disease transmitted directly between people and is 95% deadly.




Read more:
Coronavirus: Defoe’s account of the Great Plague of 1665 has startling parallels with today


Still, it was not quite as lethal as some people imagined. Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year reports a stubbornly held belief. If a man so infected breathed on a hen, rotten eggs would follow. In really severe cases, the hen would just drop dead.

Design for an amulet to ward off the plague, 17th century.
Wellcome Images, CC BY-NC-SA

The prize for bogus medicine, however, goes to the amulets and other trinkets people of 1665 carried to ward off the plague. Defoe dismisses them as “hellish Charms”, and claims they were often seen hanging round the necks of bodies in the dead carts. He captures their essence in a word the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “deceit, fraud, imposture, trickery”. The word? “Trumpery”.The Conversation

David Roberts, Professor of English and National Teaching Fellow, Birmingham City University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Diary of Samuel Pepys shows how life under the bubonic plague mirrored today’s pandemic



There were eerie similarities between Pepys’ time and our own.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ute Lotz-Heumann, University of Arizona

In early April, writer Jen Miller urged New York Times readers to start a coronavirus diary.

“Who knows,” she wrote, “maybe one day your diary will provide a valuable window into this period.”

During a different pandemic, one 17th-century British naval administrator named Samuel Pepys did just that. He fastidiously kept a diary from 1660 to 1669 – a period of time that included a severe outbreak of the bubonic plague in London. Epidemics have always haunted humans, but rarely do we get such a detailed glimpse into one person’s life during a crisis from so long ago.

There were no Zoom meetings, drive-through testing or ventilators in 17th-century London. But Pepys’ diary reveals that there were some striking resemblances in how people responded to the pandemic.

A creeping sense of crisis

For Pepys and the inhabitants of London, there was no way of knowing whether an outbreak of the plague that occurred in the parish of St. Giles, a poor area outside the city walls, in late 1664 and early 1665 would become an epidemic.

The plague first entered Pepys’ consciousness enough to warrant a diary entry on April 30, 1665: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City,” he wrote, “it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.”

Portrait of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (1666).
National Portrait Gallery

Pepys continued to live his life normally until the beginning of June, when, for the first time, he saw houses “shut up” – the term his contemporaries used for quarantine – with his own eyes, “marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there.” After this, Pepys became increasingly troubled by the outbreak.

He soon observed corpses being taken to their burial in the streets, and a number of his acquaintances died, including his own physician.

By mid-August, he had drawn up his will, writing, “that I shall be in much better state of soul, I hope, if it should please the Lord to call me away this sickly time.” Later that month, he wrote of deserted streets; the pedestrians he encountered were “walking like people that had taken leave of the world.”

Tracking mortality counts

In London, the Company of Parish Clerks printed “bills of mortality,” the weekly tallies of burials.

Because these lists noted London’s burials – not deaths – they undoubtedly undercounted the dead. Just as we follow these numbers closely today, Pepys documented the growing number of plague victims in his diary.

‘Bills of mortality’ were regularly posted.
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Image

At the end of August, he cited the bill of mortality as having recorded 6,102 victims of the plague, but feared “that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000,” mostly because the victims among the urban poor weren’t counted. A week later, he noted the official number of 6,978 in one week, “a most dreadfull Number.”

By mid-September, all attempts to control the plague were failing. Quarantines were not being enforced, and people gathered in places like the Royal Exchange. Social distancing, in short, was not happening.

He was equally alarmed by people attending funerals in spite of official orders. Although plague victims were supposed to be interred at night, this system broke down as well, and Pepys griped that burials were taking place “in broad daylight.”

Desperate for remedies

There are few known effective treatment options for COVID-19. Medical and scientific research need time, but people hit hard by the virus are willing to try anything. Fraudulent treatments, from teas and colloidal silver, to cognac and cow urine, have been floated.

Although Pepys lived during the Scientific Revolution, nobody in the 17th century knew that the Yersinia pestis bacterium carried by fleas caused the plague. Instead, the era’s scientists theorized that the plague was spreading through miasma, or “bad air” created by rotting organic matter and identifiable by its foul smell. Some of the most popular measures to combat the plague involved purifying the air by smoking tobacco or by holding herbs and spices in front of one’s nose.

Tobacco was the first remedy that Pepys sought during the plague outbreak. In early June, seeing shut-up houses “put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell … and chaw.” Later, in July, a noble patroness gave him “a bottle of plague-water” – a medicine made from various herbs. But he wasn’t sure whether any of this was effective. Having participated in a coffeehouse discussion about “the plague growing upon us in this town and remedies against it,” he could only conclude that “some saying one thing, some another.”

A 1666 engraving by John Dunstall depicts deaths and burials in London during the bubonic plague.
Museum of London

During the outbreak, Pepys was also very concerned with his frame of mind; he constantly mentioned that he was trying to be in good spirits. This was not only an attempt to “not let it get to him” – as we might say today – but also informed by the medical theory of the era, which claimed that an imbalance of the so-called humors in the body – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm – led to disease.

Melancholy – which, according to doctors, resulted from an excess of black bile – could be dangerous to one’s health, so Pepys sought to suppress negative emotions; on Sept. 14, for example, he wrote that hearing about dead friends and acquaintances “doth put me into great apprehensions of melancholy. … But I put off the thoughts of sadness as much as I can.”

Balancing paranoia and risk

Humans are social animals and thrive on interaction, so it’s no surprise that so many have found social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic challenging. It can require constant risk assessment: How close is too close? How can we avoid infection and keep our loved ones safe, while also staying sane? What should we do when someone in our house develops a cough?

During the plague, this sort of paranoia also abounded. Pepys found that when he left London and entered other towns, the townspeople became visibly nervous about visitors.

“They are afeared of us that come to them,” he wrote in mid-July, “insomuch that I am troubled at it.”

Pepys succumbed to paranoia himself: In late July, his servant Will suddenly developed a headache. Fearing that his entire house would be shut up if a servant came down with the plague, Pepys mobilized all his other servants to get Will out of the house as quickly as possible. It turned out that Will didn’t have the plague, and he returned the next day.

In early September, Pepys refrained from wearing a wig he bought in an area of London that was a hotspot of the disease, and he wondered whether other people would also fear wearing wigs because they could potentially be made of the hair of plague victims.

And yet he was willing to risk his health to meet certain needs; by early October, he visited his mistress without any regard for the danger: “round about and next door on every side is the plague, but I did not value it but there did what I could con ella.”

Just as people around the world eagerly wait for a falling death toll as a sign of the pandemic letting up, so did Pepys derive hope – and perhaps the impetus to see his mistress – from the first decline in deaths in mid-September. A week later, he noted a substantial decline of more than 1,800.

Let’s hope that, like Pepys, we’ll soon see some light at the end of the tunnel.

[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Ute Lotz-Heumann, Heiko A. Oberman Professor of Late Medieval and Reformation History, University of Arizona

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


How the rich reacted to the bubonic plague has eerie similarities to today’s pandemic



Franz Xavier Winterhalter’s ‘The Decameron’ (1837).
Heritage Images via Getty Images

Kathryn McKinley, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

The coronavirus can infect anyone, but recent reporting has shown your socioeconomic status can play a big role, with a combination of job security, access to health care and mobility widening the gap in infection and mortality rates between rich and poor.

The wealthy work remotely and flee to resorts or pastoral second homes, while the urban poor are packed into small apartments and compelled to keep showing up to work.

As a medievalist, I’ve seen a version of this story before.

Following the 1348 Black Death in Italy, the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of 100 novellas titled, “The Decameron.” These stories, though fictional, give us a window into medieval life during the Black Death – and how some of the same fissures opened up between the rich and the poor. Cultural historians today see “The Decameron” as an invaluable source of information on everyday life in 14th-century Italy.

Giovanni Boccaccio.
Leemage via Getty Images

Boccaccio was born in 1313 as the illegitimate son of a Florentine banker. A product of the middle class, he wrote, in “The Decameron,” stories about merchants and servants. This was unusual for his time, as medieval literature tended to focus on the lives of the nobility.

“The Decameron” begins with a gripping, graphic description of the Black Death, which was so virulent that a person who contracted it would die within four to seven days. Between 1347 and 1351, it killed between 40% and 50% of Europe’s population. Some of Boccaccio’s own family members died.

In this opening section, Boccaccio describes the rich secluding themselves at home, where they enjoy quality wines and provisions, music and other entertainment. The very wealthiest – whom Boccaccio describes as “ruthless” – deserted their neighborhoods altogether, retreating to comfortable estates in the countryside, “as though the plague was meant to harry only those remaining within their city walls.”

Meanwhile, the middle class or poor, forced to stay at home, “caught the plague by the thousand right there in their own neighborhood, day after day” and swiftly passed away. Servants dutifully attended to the sick in wealthy households, often succumbing to the illness themselves. Many, unable to leave Florence and convinced of their imminent death, decided to simply drink and party away their final days in nihilistic revelries, while in rural areas, laborers died “like brute beasts rather than human beings; night and day, with never a doctor to attend them.”

Josse Lieferinxe’s ‘Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken’ (c. 1498).
Wikimedia Commons

After the bleak description of the plague, Boccaccio shifts to the 100 stories. They’re narrated by 10 nobles who have fled the pallor of death hanging over Florence to luxuriate in amply stocked country mansions. From there, they tell their tales.

One key issue in “The Decameron” is how wealth and advantage can impair people’s abilities to empathize with the hardships of others. Boccaccio begins the forward with the proverb, “It is inherently human to show pity to those who are afflicted.” Yet in many of the tales he goes on to present characters who are sharply indifferent to the pain of others, blinded by their own drives and ambition.

In one fantasy story, a dead man returns from hell every Friday and ritually slaughters the same woman who had rejected him when he was alive. In another, a widow fends off a leering priest by tricking him into sleeping with her maid. In a third, the narrator praises a character for his undying loyalty to his friend when, in fact, he has profoundly betrayed that friend over many years.

Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation.

Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life?

In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 16, 2020.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Kathryn McKinley, Professor of English, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


This isn’t the first global pandemic, and it won’t be the last. Here’s what we’ve learned from 4 others throughout history



Wikimedia/Pierart dou Tielt

David Griffin, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and Justin Denholm, Melbourne Health

The course of human history has been shaped by infectious diseases, and the current crisis certainly won’t be the last time.

However, we can capitalise on the knowledge gained from past experiences, and reflect on how we’re better off this time around.




Read more:
Four of the most lethal infectious diseases of our time and how we’re overcoming them


1. The Plague, or ‘Black Death’ (14th Century)

While outbreaks of the plague (caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis) still occur in several parts of the world, there are two that are particularly infamous.

The 200-year long Plague of Justinian began in 541 CE, wiping out millions in several waves across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and crimping the expansionary aspirations of the Roman Empire (although some scholars argue that its impact has been overstated).

Then there’s the better known 14th century pandemic, which likely emerged from China and
decimated populations in Asia, Europe and Northern Africa.

Perhaps one of the greatest public health legacies to have emerged from the 14th century plague pandemic is the concept of “quarantine”, from the Venetian term “quarantena” meaning forty days.

The 14th century Black Death pandemic is thought to have catalysed enormous societal, economic, artistic and cultural reforms in Medieval Europe. It illustrates how infectious disease pandemics can be major turning points in history, with lasting impacts.

For example, widespread death caused labour shortages across feudal society, and often led to higher wages, cheaper land, better living conditions and increased freedoms for the lower class.

Various authorities lost credibility, since they were seen to have failed to protect communities from the overwhelming devastation of plague. People began to openly question long held certainties around societal structure, traditions, and religious orthodoxy.

This prompted fundamental shifts in peoples’ interactions and experience with religion, philosophy, and politics. The Renaissance period, which encouraged humanism and learning, soon followed.

The Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre was a common artistic trope of the time of the Black Death.
Public Domain/Wikimedia

The Black Death also had profound effects on art and literature, which took on more pessimistic and morbid themes. There were vivid depictions of violence and death in Biblical narratives,
still seen in many Christian places of worship across Europe.

How COVID-19 will reshape our culture, and what unexpected influence it will have for generations to come is unknown. There are already clear economic changes arising from this outbreak, as some industries rise, others fall and some businesses seem likely to disappear forever.

COVID-19 may permanently normalise the use of virtual technologies for socialising, business, education, healthcare, religious worship and even government.

2. Spanish influenza (1918)

The 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic’s reputation as one of the deadliest in human history is due to a complex interplay between how the virus works, the immune response and the social context in which it spread.

It arose in a world left vulnerable by the preceding four years of World War I. Malnutrition and overcrowding were common.

Around 500 million people were infected – a third of the global population at the time – leading to 50-100 million deaths.

A unique characteristic of infection was its tendency to kill healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

At the time, influenza infection was attributed to a bacterium (Haemophilus influenzae) rather than a virus. Antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections were still more than a decade away, and intensive care wards with mechanical ventilators were unheard of.

Clearly, our medical and scientific understanding of the ‘flu in 1918 made it difficult to combat. However, public health interventions, including quarantine, the use of face masks and bans on mass gatherings helped limit the spread in some areas, building on prior successes in controlling tuberculosis, cholera and other infectious diseases.

Australia imposed maritime quarantine, requiring all arriving ships to be cleared by Commonwealth Quarantine Officials before disembarkation. That likely delayed and reduced the Spanish flu impact on Australia, and had secondary effects on the other Pacific Islands.

The effect of maritime quarantine was most striking in Western and American Samoa, with the latter enforcing strict quarantine and experiencing no deaths. By contrast, 25% of Western Samoans died, after influenza was introduced by a ship from New Zealand.

In some cities, mass gatherings were banned, and schools, churches, theatres, dance and pool halls closed.

In the United States, cities that committed earlier, longer and more aggressively to social distancing interventions, not only saved lives, but also emerged economically stronger than those that didn’t.

Face masks and hand hygiene were popularised and sometimes enforced in cities.

In San Francisco, a Red Cross-led public education campaign was combined with mandatory mask-wearing outside the home.

This was tightly enforced in some jurisdictions by police officers issuing fines, and at times using weapons.


The Conversation, CC BY-ND

3. HIV/AIDS (20th century)

The first reported cases of HIV/AIDS in the Western world emerged in 1981.

Since then, around 75 million people have become infected with HIV, and about 32 million people have died.

Many readers may remember how baffling and frightening the HIV/AIDs pandemic was in the early days (and still is in many parts of the developing world).

We now understand that people living with HIV infection who are on treatment are far less likely to develop serious complications.

These treatments, known as antiretrovirals stop HIV from replicating. This can lead to an “undetectable viral load” in a person’s blood. Evidence shows that people with an undetectable viral load can’t pass the virus on to others during sex.

Condoms and PrEP (short for “pre-exposure prophylaxis,” where people take an oral antiretroviral pill once a day), can be used by people who don’t have HIV infection to reduce the risk of acquiring the virus.

Unfortunately, there are currently no proven antivirals available for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19, though research is ongoing.

The HIV pandemic taught us about the value of a well-designed public health campaign, and the importance of contact tracing. Broad testing in appropriate people is fundamental to this, to understand the extent of infection in the community and allow appropriately targeted individual and population-level interventions.

It also demonstrated that words and stigma matter; people need to feel they can test safely and be supported, rather than ostracised. Stigmatising language can fuel misconceptions, discrimination and discourage testing.

4. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) (2002-2003)

The current pandemic is the third coronavirus outbreak in the past two decades.

The first was in 2002, when SARS emerged from horseshoe bats in China and spread to at least 29 countries around the world, causing 8,098 cases and 774 deaths.

SARS was finally contained in July, 2003. SARS-CoV-2, however, appears much more easily spread than the original SARS coronavirus.

To some extent SARS was a practice run for COVID-19. Researchers focused on SARS and MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, another coronavirus that remains a problem in selected regions), are providing important foundational research for potential vaccines against SARS-CoV-2.

Knowledge gleaned from SARS may also lead to antiviral drugs to treat the current virus.

SARS also emphasised the importance of communication in a pandemic, and the need for frank, honest and timely information sharing.

Certainly, SARS was a catalyst for change in China; the government invested in enhanced surveillance systems, that facilitate the real time collection and communication of infectious diseases and syndromes from emergency departments back to a centralised government database.

This was coupled with the International Health Regulations, which requires the reporting of unusual and unexpected outbreaks of disease.

Advances in science, information technology and knowledge gained from SARS, allowed us to quickly isolate, sequence and share SARS-CoV-2 data globally. Likewise, important clinical information was distributed early to the medical community.

SARS demonstrated how quickly and comprehensively a virus could spread around the world in the era of air transportation, and the role of individual “superspreaders”.

SARS also underlined the importance of the inextricable link between human, animal and environmental health, known as “One Health”, that may facilitate the crossover of germs between species.

Finally, a crucial, but perhaps overlooked lesson from SARS is the need for sustained investment in vaccine and infectious disease treatment research.




Read more:
Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics


Few infectious disease researchers were surprised when another coronavirus pandemic broke out. A globalised world, with overcrowded, well connected people and cities, where humans and animals live in close proximity, provides fertile conditions for infectious diseases.

We must be ever prepared for the emergence of another pandemic, and learn the lessons of history to navigate the next threat.The Conversation

David Griffin, Infectious Diseases Fellow, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and Justin Denholm, Associate Professor, Melbourne Health

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


England: The Black Death



United Kingdom: England – The Plague in London (1665)


The link below is to an article that takes an in depth look at the plague deaths in London during 1665 and maps them.

For more visit:
http://www.theguardian.com/society/ng-interactive/2015/aug/12/london-great-plague-1665-bills-of-mortality


Bubonic Plague



United Kingdom: London – Black Death Pit Found


The link below is to an article concerning the discovery of what is thought to be a pit of Black Death victims in London, dating back to about 1348.

For more visit:
http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/15/world/europe/uk-london-skeletons/index.html


Article: Bubonic Plague Hazmat Suits from Yesteryear


The link below is to an article taking a look at ‘hazmat suits’ from the great Bubonic Plague era.

For more visit:
http://mentalfloss.com/article/49217/anatomy-14th-century-bubonic-plague-hazmat-suits


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