Whilst browsing the Royal Society’s latest events I read with interest of tonight’s discussion on the 2014 Ebola outbreak. I was reminded that this year marks not only the 350th anniversary of the world’s first scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions, but also the anniversary of an epidemic of terrible consequence: the Great Plague of London. This is definitely my most memorable history topic from school, thanks to our teacher’s gruesome descriptions of the disease’s symptoms.

In the seventeenth century plague was endemic to London, with severe outbreaks expected every few years. While it was thought to be contagious, no-one actually knew how it was transmitted and the age-old wisdom of Galen and Hippocrates to ‘fly quickly, go far, return slowly’ was the most pertinent advice available for those lucky (and generally wealthy) enough to be able to leave.


Advertisement from Philosophical Transactions number 5, 3 July 1665


Samuel Pepys’s diary first mentions the outbreak on 30 April 1665: “Great fears of the sickenesse here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all!” It is estimated that one in seven of the population of London was lost in consequence of ‘the Great Dying’ and economic activity was brought to a standstill for almost six months. Many saw the rapid progress of the disease as a manifestation of Divine judgement.


Extract of the numbers of christenings and burials in London 1665-1728. Royal Society Classified Papers Cl.P/17/43


The Society’s Library contains the rather excellently titled work ‘Certain necessary directions as well for the cure of the plague, as for preventing the infection: with many easie medicines of small charge, very profitable to His Majesties subjects; set down by the Colledge of Physicians’ (1665). This guide effectively summarises techniques for preventing the spread of plague. One of my favourites states 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, and their neighbours may correct the infectious Air; as also frequent discharging of guns”. The book also contains many recipes for treatments, medicines and pomanders including ingredients for ‘the richer sort’ and the following rather bizarre suggestion for the ‘poorer sort’ who could not access a chirurgeon:


‘Certain necessary directions as well for the cure of the plague…’, Royal College of Physicians (1665)


In the summer of 1665 Fellows of the Royal Society were forced by the continuing spread of the disease to disperse hurriedly into the country. The Society’s last meeting was held on 28 June, and included a plea from the President to “bear in mind the several tasks laid upon them… Mr. Hook was urged to prosecute his Chariots, Watches, Glass, during this recess”. Some of the Society’s leading experimentalists including Robert Hooke, Sir William Petty and Dr John Wilkins, under instructions from the President and Council, took experimental equipment to the Durdans estate, residence of Lord George Berkeley. The next meeting of the Society did not take place until 14 March 1666, at which Hooke reported that he had been experimenting on the weighing of bodies in a very deep well, and that he and Wilkins had been trialling a horse-drawn chariot for two, which Wilkins thought would make a very convenient post chariot.

At the Society’s meeting on 21March the various activities of the previously scattered members were discussed and a report from Italy was provided in which “it had been observed in that country, that there was a kind of insect in the Air, which being put upon a Man’s hand, would lay eggs hardly discernable without a Microscope, which eggs, being for an experiment given to be snuffed up by a dog, the dog fell into a distemper accompanied with all the symptoms of the plague”. I was intrigued by such experiments, and so a little further digging revealed a rather horrific report in the Philosophical Transactions recorded by one Dr Deidier during a 1722 plague outbreak in Marseilles.

Deidier reports (and you may wish to pause here if you are eating, and definitely do so if you read the full story) that there was a dog at the hospital who followed the surgeons and consumed all manner of plague-ridden body parts as well as licking the blood of plague victims, “this he did for about three Months, and was always well, gay, brisk, full of Play, and familiar with all Comers”. The dog was subsequently injected with the bile of a deceased plague victim and, needless to say, four days later, showing the buboes and carbuncles indicative of plague, passed away “having struggled hard to escape out of his Confinement”.

Today we understand that bubonic plague is caused by the rod-shaped bacterium Yersinia pestis named for Alexander Yersin, the Swiss physician and bacteriologist, and is generally transmitted by the bite of an infected flea. Thankfully antibiotics have proved effective in the treatment of the disease but our fears of a new outbreak seem to remain.


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