Tag Archives: disease

Before epidemiologists began modelling disease, it was the job of astrologers



Women, representing nature, argue the influence of the zodiac with scholars in this undated 17th century engraving.
Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Michelle Pfeffer, The University of Queensland

The internet is awash with comparisons between life during COVID-19 and life during the Bubonic plague. The two have many similarities, from the spread of misinformation and the tracking of mortality figures, to the ubiquity of the question “when will it end?”

But there are, of course, crucial differences between the two. Today, when looking for information on the incidence, distribution, and likely outcome of the pandemic, we turn to epidemiologists and infectious disease models. During the Bubonic plague, people turned to astrologers.

Exploring the role played by astrologers in past epidemics reminds us that although astrology has been debunked, it was integral to the development of medicine and public health.

The flu, written in the stars

Before germ theory, the Scientific Revolution and then the Age of Enlightenment, it was common for medical practitioners to use astrological techniques in their everyday practice.

Hans Holbein’s Danse Macabre woodcut (1523-25).
Wikimedia

Compared to the simplistic horoscopes in today’s magazines, premodern astrology was a complex field based on detailed astronomical calculations. Astrologers were respected health authorities who were taught at the finest universities throughout Europe, and hired to treat princes and dukes.

Astrology provided physicians with a naturalistic explanation for the onset and course of disease. They believed the movements of the celestial bodies, in relation to each other and the signs of the Zodiac, governed events on earth. Horoscopes mapped the heavens, allowing physicians to draw conclusions about the onset, severity, and duration of illness.

The impact of astrology on the history of medicine can still be seen today. The term “influenza” was derived from the idea that respiratory disease was a product of the influence of the stars.




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Altered mind this morning? Hehe, just blame the planets


Public health and plague

Astrologers were seen as important authorities for the health of communities as well as individuals. They offered public health advice in annual almanacs, which were some of the most widely read literature in the premodern world.

Almanacs provided readers with tables for astrological events for the coming year, as well as advice on farming, political events, and the weather.

The publications were also important disseminators of medical knowledge. They explained basic medical principles and suggested remedies. They made prognostications about national health, using astrology to predict when an influx of venereal disease or plague was likely to arise.

These public health predictions were often based on the astrological theory of conjunctions. According to this theory, when certain planets seem to approach each other in the sky from our perspective on earth, great socio-cultural events are bound to occur.

When Bubonic plague hit France in 1348, the King asked the physicians at the University of Paris to account for its origins. Their answer was that the plague was caused by a conjunction of Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter.




Read more:
How medieval writers struggled to make sense of the Black Death


Predictions from above

Astrological accounts of plague remained popular into the 17th century. In this period, astrology was increasingly attacked as superstitious, so some astrologers tried to set their field on a more scientific grounding.

In an effort to make astrology more scientific, the English astrologer John Gadbury produced one of the earliest epidemiological studies of disease.

In London’s Deliverance Predicted (1655), Gadbury claimed his contemporaries couldn’t explain when plagues would arrive, or how long they’d last.

Gadbury proposed that if planets caused plagues, then planets also stopped plagues. Studying astrological events would therefore allow one to predict the course of an epidemic.

He gathered data from the previous four great London plagues (in 1593, 1603, 1625, and 1636), scouring the Bills of Mortality for weekly plague death rates, and compiling A Table shewing the Increase and Abatement of the Plague. Gadbury also used planetary tables to locate the planets’ positions throughout the epidemics. He then compared his data sets, looking for correlations.

Gadbury found a correlation between intensity of plague and the positions of Mars and Venus. Plague deaths increased sharply in July 1593, at which point Mars had moved into an astrologically significant position. Deaths then abated in September, when Venus’s position became more significant. Gadbury concluded that the movement of “the fiery Planet Mars” was the origin of pestilence and the “cause of its raging”, while the influence of the “friendly” Venus helped abate it.

Gadbury then applied his findings to the pestilence plaguing London at the time. He was able to correlate the beginnings of the plague in late 1664 and its growing intensity in June 1665 with recent astrological events.

He predicted the upcoming movement of Venus in August would see a fall in plague deaths. Then the movement of Mars in September would make the plague deadlier, but the movements of Venus in October, November, and December would halt the death rate.

The black death in London, circa 1665. Creator unknown.
The black death in London

Looking for patterns

Unfortunately for Gadbury, plague deaths increased dramatically in August. However, he was right in predicting a peak in September followed by a steep decrease at the end of the year. If Gadbury had accounted for other correlates – such as the coming of winter – his study might have been received more favourably.

The medical advice in Gadbury’s book certainly doesn’t stand up today. He argued the plague was not contagious, and that isolating at home only caused more deaths. Yet his attempt to find correlations with fluctuating mortality rates offers an early example of what we now call epidemiology.

While we may discredit Gadbury’s astrological assumptions, examples such as this illustrate the important role astrology played in the history of medicine, paving the way for naturalist explanations of infectious disease.The Conversation

Michelle Pfeffer, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in History, The University of Queensland

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


Fleas to flu to coronavirus: how ‘death ships’ spread disease through the ages



Cushing/Whitney Medical Library

Joy Damousi, Australian Catholic University

One of the haunting images of this pandemic will be stationary cruise ships – deadly carriers of COVID-19 – at anchor in harbours and unwanted. Docked in ports and feared.

The news of the dramatic spread of the virus on the Diamond Princess from early February made the news real for many Australians who’d enjoyed holidays on the seas. Quarantined in Yokohama, Japan, over 700 of the ship’s crew and passengers became infected. To date, 14 deaths have been recorded.

The Diamond Princess’s sister ship, the Ruby Princess, brought the pandemic to Australian shores. Now under criminal investigation, the events of the Ruby Princess forced a spotlight on the petri dish cruise ships can become. The ship has been linked to 21 deaths.

History shows the devastating role ships can play in transmitting viruses across vast continents and over many centuries.




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Rats in the ranks

Merchant ships carrying rats with infected fleas were transmitters of the Plague of Justinian (541-542 AD) that devastated the Byzantine Empire.

Ships carrying grain from Egypt were home to flea-infested rats that fed off the granaries. Contantinople was especially inflicted, with estimates as high as 5,000 casualties a day. Globally, up to 50 million people are estimated to have been killed – half the world’s population.

The Black Death was also carried by rats on merchant ships through the trade routes of Europe. It struck Europe in 1347, when 12 ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina.

The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death.
Wikimedia Commons

Subsequently called “death ships”, those on board were either dead or sick. Soon, the Black Death spread to ports around the world, such as Marseilles, Rome and Florence, and by 1348 had reached London with devastating impact.

The Italian writer, poet and scholar, Giovanni Boccaccio, wrote how terror swept through Florence with relatives deserting infected family members. Almost inconceivably, he wrote, “fathers and mothers refused to nurse their own children, as though they did not belong to them”.

Ships started being turned away from European ports in 1347. Venice was the first city to close, with those permitted to enter forced into a 40-day quarantine: the word “quarantine” derives from the Italian quarantena, or 40 days.

By January 1349, mass graves proliferated outside of London to bury the increasing numbers of dead.




Read more:
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


Army and naval ships, as well as travellers around the globe, also carried cholera pandemics throughout the 19th century. In the first pandemic in 1817, British army and navy ships are believed to have spread cholera beyond India where the outbreaks originated.

Egyptians boarding boats on the Nile during a cholera epidemic, drawn by CL Auguste (1841-1905.)
Wellcome Collection, CC BY

By the 1820s, cholera had spread throughout Asia, reaching Thailand, Indonesia, China and Japan through shipping. British troops spread it to the Persian Gulf, eventually moving through Turkey and Syria.

Subsequent outbreaks from the 1820s through to the 1860s relied on trade and troops to spread the disease across continents.

At war with the Spanish Flu

The Spanish influenza of 1918-1919 was originally carried by soldiers on overcrowded troop ships during the first world war. The rate of transmission on these ships was rapid, and soldiers died in large numbers.

One New Zealand rifleman wrote in his diary in September 1918:

More deaths and burials total now 42. A crying shame but it is only to be expected when human beings are herded together the way they have been on this boat.

The SS Port Darwin returned from Europe, docked at Portsea, Victoria. Soldiers are waiting to pass through a fumigation chamber to protect Australia against the Spanish Flu.
Australian War Memorial

The flu was transmitted throughout Europe in France, Great Britain, Italy and Spain. Three-quarters of French troops and over half of British troops fell ill in 1918. Hundreds of thousands of US soldiers travelling on troop ships across the Atlantic and back provided the perfect conditions for transmission.

The fate of cruising

A new and lethal carrier in the 21st century has emerged in the pleasure industry of cruise ships. The explosion of cruise holidays in the past 20 years has led to a proliferation of luxury liners plying the seas.

Like historical pandemics, the current crisis shares the characteristic of rapid spread through ships.

The unknown is in what form cruise ships will continue to operate. Unlike the port-to-port trade and armed forces that carried viruses across continents centuries ago, the services cruise lines offer are non-essential.

Whatever happens, the global spread of COVID-19 reminds us “death ships” are an enduring feature of the history of pandemics.The Conversation

Joy Damousi, Director, Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, Australian Catholic University

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


Disease in History



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


Article: Gross Medicine


The link below is to an article that looks at some of the terrible treatments for illness and disease in history.

For more visit:
http://mentalfloss.com/article/31675/historys-grossest-medical-treatments


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