Records from the Great Plague of London

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Post contributed by Emily Bowden, Historical Collections Assistant at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Two men dissecting a body with plague.

The title page of Thomson’s Loimotomia: or, the Pest Anatomized, 1666, showing Thomson and his assistant dissecting a plague victim. Image courtesy Wellcome Images.

 

In 1665 an unwelcome but not unfamiliar visitor stalked the streets of London, bringing with it widespread sickness, fear, and death. The Great Plague of London was the last major outbreak in a long string of bubonic plague epidemics to strike the city—last but certainly not least as in just one year it left a death toll of 70,000, nearly 15% of the population of London. The mortality rate peaked in September 1665 when over 7,000 died in one week.

While the city’s wealthy residents fled to the country, a physician named George Thomson stayed behind, unwilling to abandon his suffering patients. For centuries plague had been countered with a range of treatments, including bleeding, purging, herbal remedies, and fumigation, all without much effect. Quarantines were also imposed, but became impossible to enforce in 1665 as death tolls rose and the removal and burial of bodies took place continuously throughout the city. Thomson survived the plague, though not without a close brush with death. By his own account, he contracted the disease after conducting the dissection of a plague victim. When the usual remedies proved inadequate, Thomson turned to an unusual-sounding treatment (though at the time not uncommon): the “toad cure.” Placing a dried toad wrapped in linen on his stomach, Thomson observed the toad swell as it drew the “pestilential poison” out of his body, leaving him fully cured of the disease. This treatment is reminiscent of a similarly unlikely plague cure documented two decades earlier, which required an identical procedure, except with a puppy substituted for Thomson’s dried toad. Thomson recorded his efforts to understand and eliminate the plague in a work published in 1666 titled Loimotomia: or, the Pest Anatomized, a copy of which is held in the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library.

In the 1578 "Plague Book", Queen Elizabeth's advisers discuss the importance of clean apparel in controlling the spread of the plague.

In the 1578 “Plague Book”, Queen Elizabeth’s advisers discuss the importance of clean apparel in controlling the spread of the plague.

Thomson’s 1666 book isn’t the only plague-related work in the library’s collection. You can also find an edict first issued in 1578 by Queen Elizabeth I and her Privy Council. The orders, which would still have been in effect during the Great Plague of 1665, record examples of plague treatments, as well as instructions for handling the dead bodies of plague victims, imposing quarantines, and (of great importance) collecting taxes from quarantined towns. In May of 1666, after the Great Plague of London had run its course, a new official plague edict was issued. The contents of our sixteenth century “Plague Book” have been fully digitized and are available through an online exhibit. Both the “Plague Book” and Thomson’s Loimotomia provide a fascinating glimpse of the terror disease commanded in past centuries, a fear that perhaps seems less distant after witnessing recent outbreaks of measles and Ebola in the world today.

 

Gilman, E.B. (2009). Plague writing in early modern England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The great plague of London, 1665. (2015). Contagion: Historical views of diseases and epidemics. Retrieved from: http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/contagion/plague.html

Sherwood, J. (2010, November 30). “Of puppies and toads: Marvelous cures for the plague.” Retrieved from: http://williameamon.com/?p=329

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