Pepysing back at the 1665-66 plague of London

I aimed for a weekly post about the health of the natural world, but here I am dwelling on coronavirus again. Is anyone undistracted by this pandemic?

This time I dusted off my copies of Samuel Pepys diaries in which he recorded the bubonic plague in the city I grew up in. Londoners were familiar with the scourge. The Black Death carried off most of the population across Europe in the 14th century and made other appearances. Although believed to be carried in the air (‘miasma’), human contact was a known agency too. Inbound merchant vessels had to rest at anchor for 40 days before disembarking (a number straight from the Bible). Plagues then took months to sweep across the known world in merchant sailing ships as we became more connected by trade, but it only takes a few hours or days by air travel today.

Pepys wrote in August 31, 1665: “the plague everywhere through the kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the City died this week … 6,102 of the plague. But it is feared the number of the dead this week is near 10,000”. He had little confidence in statistics because the poor were often unrecorded and Quakers forbade tolling the bell for their losses. Nor will the true number of coronavirus deaths be known for a long time.

Two weeks later: “To hear that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself. To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams is dead of the plague and one of my watermen …” Epidemic is merely numbers until its meaning is wrought in suffering people you know and care about. Willful ignorance and denial of science we currently witness in the news will surely be tested with the fire of personal tragedies to come.

Church on the hillA shipment of cloth from London to a tailor in Eyam, a small village near Sheffield, carried infected fleas in 1665. Dreaded buboes erupting with pus appeared on the skin of villagers. The Eyam community led by an Anglican priest is hailed as an example of self-sacrifice where quarantine was imposed to avoid spreading the contagion outside.

Beautiful myths grow up where facts are scarce. The priest sent his children away and the poor could not afford to go. But it is a fact that only a quarter survived, and maybe the odds in neighboring villages benefitted from ‘lockdown’. According to a math model, quarantine may have made matters worse for Eyam by prohibiting dispersal if closer contact led to a more deadly pneumonic (pulmonary) plague. If there is a hero in the story, it is the priest’s wife because she stayed and died.

We constantly ask how the current ‘plague’ will end, and when?  In Eyam it burned out by running out of victims (from herd immunity?), but no one imagined it would take a literal fire in London.

Pepys wrote on September 2 of the following year: “With my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower (of London), who tells me that it began this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned down St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish Street already … and did tell the King (Charles II) and the Duke of York what I saw; and that, unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire.” It seemed perverse to add to the physical and economic destruction but in the end was the best policy.

Sometimes we have been lucky in history with leaders who rose to the challenge of crises with coordinated, compassionate and effective responses. This time we have seen dithering politicians scared that bold responses might dent their standing and blind to the bigger picture. This coronavirus emergency is terrible and a vaccine is an urgent goal, but unless its roots in careless stewardship of nature are acknowledged the ancient cycle of plagues will be repeated, because everything is connected.

By Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology. Career as professor & research director spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. Retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and recover from 'nature deficit disorder'. Currently a visiting scholar at William & Mary.

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