Monday, 31 May 2010

The Great Plague, Science and Medicine

"Bring out your dead!"

The death cart was an unfortunate necessity for dealing with the sheer number of people who had fallen victim to this terrible disease. In the 1600s, the death cart was as common as the rubbish truck that drives past your house every week. Sadly (a bit like our own bin men in snow at Christmas time), it took a while for them to be collected. Before that, dead bodies were just thrown out into the street and left rotting in the middle of the road. Nowadays we can’t imagine doing this, can we? Then the doctors of the times said the bodies should be left in the houses, instead of in the street, where anyone walking past could catch the disease. Then the death cart was established. It would pass by with the call ‘Bring out your dead’ and the poor relatives would bring out the bodies of their loved ones and place them on the cart.

What else did we English do to cope with the plague? What medicine was used at the time, and how exactly did people think the plague was being passed from human to human?

As we mentioned before, the first action was to keep sick people locked inside their houses, but loads more initiatives were formed to fight the disease.

The Privy Council (close advisors of the King) recommended closing all of the public areas where people would be close contact with each other and could catch the plague, such as market places. The crowded streets of London needed to be cleared. Next, it was decided to kill all the dogs and cats of London, because it was suspected these were disease carriers. However, this slaughter actually did more harm than good, because it was actually the rats that mostly carried the plague, and with all the dogs and cats gone, the rats were now free to roam about and spread the disease even further.

Knowledge of science and medicine was not as developed as now, but there were many theories. The Miasma theory of disease was put forward by the brightest minds of the time, and it stated that disease was spread by bad smells. Given the fact that the streets were overflowing with sewage and rubbish, the theory wasn’t that ridiculous. It made sense. At the time, no one knew about the bacteria and viruses that were causing the infection. So one way to deal with the plague at the time was to wear sweet smelling flowers and carry handkerchiefs to prevent inhaling bad smells.

In 1665, a book was written by the Royal College of Physicians. It had a very long title: Royal College of Physicians of London. 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. London: Printed by John Bill and Christopher Barker, 1665.

It’s a really interesting read if you want to learn more about how the great minds of the time approached the plague. (Just remember that during the time, s and f were interchangable. (In case you don't understand words like Majefties, Lordfhips and moft requifite)).
The directions in the book included the following:
~ six or four doctors at least, who may apply themselves to cure the infected. Each would have their own team to help.
~ persons and goods that came from foreign lands would be in isolation for forty days to prevent further diseases.
~ slaughterhouses should also be closed because they are 'offensive' (smell-wise ... no vegetarianism here!)
~ A house known to be infected must be watched in order to make sure no one escapes and wanders the streets.
~ fires could be burned to purify the air
~ the nosegays or handkerchiefs that people carried must be held "a little in their mouths as they go in the streets" and anointed with oil for their noses.
Whether or not any of these measures were in any way successful is doubtful. Remember that all of the qualified doctors left London, which left the unqualified volunteers to do the job for them.

NEXT TIME: Important Victims of the Plague

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