On television, forensic scientists can solve the mystery of someone’s death in an hour. In reality, uncovering the facts can take a lot longer. As an anthropologist leading the investigation of some skeletons dug up in England last year put it: their discovery “solves a 660-year-old mystery.” DNA tests on the skeletons revealed that they didn’t die of bubonic plague; they died of pneumonic plague.
Workers extending the London railway line unearthed 25 skeletons. They were victims of the Black Death that ravaged the world from 1348 to 1350, killing at least 75 million people. Scientists examining the bones confirmed not just the cause of death but details about the lives of those who died. Their bones reveal lives marred by violence and characterized by heavy work and malnutrition. The Black Death carried them away quickly. Untreated, it can kill in a few days. With no understanding of the cause of the disease, 14th-century Europeans often blamed Jews and foreigners for the disastrous epidemic that transformed life around the globe.
Bubonic plague is spread by fleas from infected rodents and is now easily cured by antibiotics. If the infection reaches the lungs and becomes pneumonic plague, however, it can be transmitted from person to person via infected droplets in cough. Victims must be treated promptly; mortality rates from this form of the disease are high. There is a third form of plague, septicemic plague, also spread by fleas.
Epidemics of plague can be traced back to 541 A.D. and have continued to this day. Plague came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, with an outbreak centered largely in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Public health authorities declared war on rats, and killed millions. Chinatown was quarantined, and what one historian called an accompanying “plague of prejudice” came in its wake. A second epidemic hit during the city’s rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake; once again rats were targeted for extinction. (Rodent control remains an important public health function)
Plague outbreaks still occur and are monitored by the World Health Organization. Globally, the number of cases averages between 1,000 and 2,000 per year. There are a comparative handful in the United States, between 1 and 17 cases per year in past decades, mostly in rural areas of the southwest.
The myth persists that the song “Ring Around the Rosie” references the Black Death of the 14th century (the first symptom is a round, red rash). It doesn’t. But the Black Death left an enduring legacy in the literature and culture of the late middle ages.
Bringing up bodies—in the form of skeletons and mummies--and examining them for medical information (known as paleopathology) can be a window into health experiences, culture, discrimination, and daily life in the distant past. Knowledge of past encounters with disease outbreaks can, in turn, provide an opportunity to reflect on how we respond to modern pandemics. Sometimes we are as quick to blame others as carriers as we are to search for causes and cures. In that way, we are little different from those who lived in the 14th century.
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