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Avoiding the plague

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If I were a time traveller I would avoid London in 1665 like the plague. Yes, it was 350 years ago this summer that the Great Plague — the last major epidemic of bubonic plague in Britain — took hold in London.

A few cases had occurred during the bitter winter of 1664–65, when the icy weather may have held back its spread. But as the weather warmed into a sweltering summer, the disease proliferated and by July the plague was rampant. It devastated London, practically shutting down all trade and social life and eventually killing an estimated 100,000 Londoners — almost a quarter of the population. The royal court and parliament fled the capital until the epidemic subsided.

Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is usually transmitted through the bite of an infected rat flea. At the time the cause was unknown and, even it if had been, there was no effective treatment. But this did not stop unscrupulous charlatans offering a range of supposed cures at high prices. Because they had little alternative, many victims were willing to invest in quack remedies such as powdered “unicorn horn”. These were often fraudulently claimed to have been miraculously effective during previous epidemics. Few sufferers survived.

Londoners also employed various superstitious measures to protect them from the disease. Wearing lucky charms was common, and was even recommended by doctors. And because the plague was thought to be caused by foul air, people tried to ward it off by burning brimstone (sulfur) — as recommended by the College of Physicians — or by wearing perfumes, carrying fragrant flowers or smoking tobacco. At Eton School smoking became a requirement, and boys who did not smoke were punished by whipping.

One preventative method that may have had some success was the avoidance of direct contact between traders and their customers. Rather than handing money direct to the trader, customers put their coins into a bowl of vinegar. And the goods purchased were sometimes handed over on the end of a long hook.

Many physicians would not go near plague patients, but those who did bother to attend them wore strange protective costumes. The head was enclosed in a leather hood fitted with a beaked mask that was stuffed with herbs, perfumes and spices to purify the air breathed by the doctor. Glass built into the hood’s eyeholes protected the doctor’s face. The rest of the body was covered by a full-length gown of thick, waxed material, and leather gloves protected the hands from any form of contact with the disease. Plague doctors would even carry a wooden stick with which to drive away people who came too close. These precautions would certainly have helped protect them from infection.

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