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Editor’s Notebook: Putting plagues in perspective I

Home » Longevity » Editor’s Notebook: Putting plagues in perspective I

We complain about this pandemic and, yes, it’s bad by modern standards, but let’s have a little perspective. Infectious diseases have plagued humanity since forever—and sometimes they seemed to last forever.

“The Great Plague of London, from 1665 to 1666, was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England,” notes Wikipedia.

“It happened within a centuries-long pandemic that originated in Central Asia in 1331 (the first year of the Black Death) and lasted until 1750, killing an estimated 100,000 people—almost a quarter of London’s population—in 18 months.”

The good news is that it was on a much smaller scale than the earlier Black Death pandemic.

“It became known afterwards as the ‘great’ plague mainly because it was the last widespread outbreak of bubonic plague in England during the 400-year Second Pandemic.”

What — 400 years!

We complain if we can’t fix a problem in weeks, months at the outside.

Moreover, in earlier times they didn’t have a clue what caused infectious diseases. A comet came by in 1664, and that was considered a bad omen.

In fact, the plague was caused by a tiny bacterium transmitted through the bite of a human flea or louse.

“A Journal of the Plague Year: Death was Before their Eyes” by Daniel DeFoe, which reads like an eyewitness account of 1665, was published in 1722. (Dafoe, whose book “Robinson Crusoe” helped create the modern novel, was only four years old in 1665.)

His book is surprisingly modern. It blends statistics, records, and novelistic descriptions and dialogue to read like a newspaper account of the Great Plague that enveloped London like a supernatural fog.

Even though its cause was unknown, authorities responded by enforcing “social distancing” and burning the bodies and clothes of the newly dead.

Just like today, there were some benefits to shutting down the status quo for a while. One was the invention of modern physics.

In 1665 the young Isaac Newton, an unpleasant character somewhere out on the autism spectrum, left Cambridge University to return to the family farm. The universities emptied out as most people sought seclusion (“social distancing”), which was known to reduce the risk of getting sick, although they did not know why.

Even without germ theory, for centuries people knew that “social distancing” helped, as did burning the clothes and bedding of the sick and dying.

Newton had an insular, paranoic personality. His had been a lonely childhood. After his father died his mother remarried and his stepfather forbade his mother to see her son. During the week he was sent to school in a neighboring village where he boarded at the apothecary’s. At night the lonely child made models and drew graphs on the walls.

Luckily for Newton, his stepfather died a few years later.

As a young man Newton was known as a terrible farmer, more concerned with doing flow experiments in ditches than watering the sheep. He was, however, the unofficial timekeeper for the village, at a time when the smallest practical unit of time was about eight minutes.

By the time he had returned to university after the worst of “The Plague” was over, Newton had helped to launch modern science by inventing calculus and discovering the law of universal gravitation.

It was now easier to track the paths of the heavenly bodies, including comets, and to predict the tides. Still, germ theory and the earlies vaccines were more than a century away.

You might also enjoy this article on the controversy of the new Alzheimer’s drug.

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