Over the course of history, infectious diseases have proven to be fatal at a large scale due to existing societal conditions and a lack of sufficient medical knowledge or supplies. While some plagues are better known than others, they have all left a mark on the world following their spread of panic and death.
When it comes to the plague, what some individuals may not realize is that each outbreak is the return of the same disease. While plague outbreaks are not common in modern society, the plague has not yet gone extinct. With the advent of modern medicine and improved living conditions as well as hygiene, the plague has fewer methods of being spread, but that does not mean the plague belongs solely in the past.
The Black Death
Arguably the most well known outbreak of the plague, the Black Death impacted Europe between 1347 and 1353. While the Black Death moniker has become widespread, this name was not assigned to the outbreak until later in history; at the time of its infection and for many years after, this outbreak was simply referred to as “the pestilence.” Though the origin of this outbreak remains uncertain, it is believed that this virulent strain was brought from the east by Italian sailors returning home.
Symptoms of the Black Death included the development of tumors which were quick to spread as well as gangrene-like effects and black spots appearing on the body. These black spots likely influenced the name later adapted to the outbreak.
To treat victims of the Black Death, medieval physicians resorted to a number of ineffective treatments including lancing and bloodletting. In some circles, the Black Death was believed to be a punishment from God, and others blamed the Jewish population, resulting in violent riots.
The death toll of the Black Death is believed to have risen above 50 million, with 25 million being from Europe and the other half from Asia. People in Europe died at such a rapid rate that most deceased individuals were buried in mass graves or, in many cases, left to rot in the streets or inside their survivors’ homes. Death rates were higher in cities such as Venice, Florence, and Paris.
While the devastation caused by the Black Death resulted in panic and widespread grief, historians also believe that the ensuing labor shortage helped to stimulate the economy as more individuals from the lower classes were able to find work with a higher rate of success.
The Great Plague of London
Over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, London was a victim to many different outbreaks of the plague. One of the most devastating instances occurred between 1665 and 1666. The pneumonic plague outbreak resulted in between 75,000 and 100,000 deaths with roughly 7,000 people dying each week at its peak. In an effort to contain the spread of the plague, authorities resorted to quarantining infected individuals in their homes and marking the buildings with red crosses. Areas that were dirty, crowded, and poorly maintained were subject to the greatest amount of devastation.
Later, the Great Fire of 1666 resulted in even more tragedy and death. However, it is believed that the fire, as well as reconstruction efforts, disturbed the natural habitats of London’s rodent population, limiting the spread of the plague following the fire.
The Third Plague Pandemic
As the most recent plague pandemic, the third pandemic wreaked havoc first in China but quickly spread around the world by the beginning of the 20th century. This pandemic spread to all six inhabited continents through infected rats that were aboard steamships. Over the course of the pandemic, more than 15 million deaths were reported. Most of these deaths occurred in Asia, namely China and India, but there were scattered cases of fatalities in Africa and North America, as well. While the high death toll caused considerable distress, this pandemic actually led to a number of breakthroughs. A doctor named Alexandre Yersin who was based in Hong Kong identified the cause of the plague as the bacillus Yersinia pestis in 1894. Shortly after this discovery, it was found that rats, as well as the fleas they carried, were the primary cause of the plague’s global spread by Paul-Louis Simond.
A cure has yet to be discovered or invented, but the developments that came about from the third plague pandemic allowed for significant medical advancements in the understanding, treatment, and prevention of future outbreaks.
Plague outbreaks over the centuries are a reminder that disease can affect all of us, and that the health of those around us is crucial to our own well-being. While there has not been a major pandemic since the early- to mid-1900s, it is important to acknowledge the devastation such a disease can cause, as well as the possibility that the plague could return, resulting in harmful effects to societies, cultures, and populations around the world.
Jorge J. Perez is an attorney in South Florida. He is passionate about history, particularly that which predates the 20th century.