Centuries ago, Europe was hit by waves of terrifying diseases. They called these diseases Â“the plague.Â”
Centuries ago, Europe was hit by waves of terrifying diseases. They called these diseases “the plague.”
One of the deadliest outbreaks of disease in history was the Black Death, an outbreak of the plague that swept across Europe between 1347 and 1351, killing over 25 million people – one person in every three. Whole towns were wiped out.
Smaller outbreaks continued for centuries until people appeared to develop resistance.
The Black Death may have been the disease bubonic plague, because one of the first symptoms was horrible lumps on the body called “buboes.”
Huge pus-filled buboes grew on victims’ arms, necks, and groins. The buboes were caused by the swelling of lymph nodes, which are parts of the body that fight infections.
In a rare, and particularly nasty, kind of plague called septicemic plague, people’s skin turned deep purple or even black. They would die within hours of the symptoms appearing.
Because they thought the plague was spread by bad air and touching victims, doctors visiting plague victims wore a long metal beak stuffed full of herbs. They also wore a thick leather gown and gloves.
In fact, the plague could be spread by sneezing, which blew germs into the air.
Rats and Fleas
Many people blamed rats for the plague, but it was actually carried by fleas.
The plague germ, called Yersinia pestis, was passed from one rat to another by rat fleas. Large numbers of infected rats died. Only when the rats had died did the fleas turn to another source of food: humans.
Fleas spread the plague germ when they bite their host.
A hundred years ago in British India, you could get a job as a flea counter, counting how many fleas there were on a rat. A lot of fleas meant an outbreak of plague was imminent.
Fleas have an internal thermometer that tells them when to leave a dying rat’s body.
Great Plague of London
A huge wave of bubonic plague hit London in the years 1665 and 1666. About 100,000 people are thought to have died or 20 percent of the city’s entire population. This outbreak was called the “Great Plague.”
The disease was probably brought over on boats from Amsterdam. It spread quickly through the poor slums in the East End docks.
The Great Fire of London on September 2-3, 1666 was a disaster that destroyed much of the city. But it also ended the Great Plague because it killed the city’s rats and their fleas.