‘This calamitous year: plague, doctors and death’

On Monday 29th June, I traveled to London to the Royal College of Physicians to hear a public lecture on the ‘This calamitous year: plague, doctors and death’. The evening marked 350 years since the Great Plague of 1665, the event was split into three separate lectures. The first by Dr. Stephen Porter introduced us to the plague and three pandemics. He highlighted the extraordinary loss of life and widespread nature of the plague, at one point the pestilence reached nearly every parish of London. What I learnt was that the peasants of London were pretty much abandoned by the rich and most the physicians of London avoided the city, for which they gained much resentment. The care of the sick- which was quite limited- was many left to the apothecaries of the time, who may have worn the iconic beaked plague doctor costume. Whilst other theories such as the Great Fire of London have been suggested, the speaker proposed that the most credible explanation for the end of the plague was the introduction of stricter trading regulations preventing the flea-carrying rats from reaching the British Isle again.
The second speaker, Katie Birkwood gave an introduction to the role of the physician during the plague. Her talk was based upon a small rare book which was published in 1665 on request of the government to the college of physicians to advise methods of prevention and treatment of the Bubonic plague. The book gave a brief reference to herbal and medicinal remedies, these were displayed by the museum for public viewing. In addition, she presented some of the more quirky treatments such as using a suffocated chicken to burst the characteristic buboes, if one could not afford the surgeon.
The final talk was given by the curator of the Museum of London Human Osteology, Jelena Bekvalac. In this talk we were given an insight into the work carried out by the archaeologists on burial sites to reveal the lives of Londoners over the centuries. She indicated some of the ways to analyse and in conjunction with contextual information suggest the causes of deaths of human remains found all over the city. Methods of analysis included bone examinations and DNA testing of teeth. I found it interesting to hear about different pathologies presented by different time periods. It is clear that the museum is looking forward to filling the gap in their timeline with the upcoming Bedlam excavation with the aid of Crossrail. I was intrigued by the images displayed of curved spines and fused vertebra. I was amazed by the story of one man who survived being shot in the back with a projectile by living with it lodged in his back, but fell victim to the infamous pestilence. As I left, I enjoyed the display of flowers and herbs used to prevent or treat the plague and now feel inspired to go to the Museum of London.

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