The History of the Plague, Smallpox, and Vaccination in Europe: Q&A with an Expert
The article discusses the impact of bubonic plague in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its eventual decline, and the rise of smallpox as an even deadlier disease. The role of religious practices, medical treatments, and scientific observation in preventing and curing these diseases is explored. The article details how scientific experimentation and observation led to the development of the smallpox vaccine, which resulted in more significant reductions in mortality rates in the eighteenth century.
Table of Contents
- The Impact of Bubonic Plague on Europe
- Religious Practices in Mitigating Plague
- Improvements in Public Health
- Smallpox and the Humoral Theory of Health
- The Rise of Vaccination
- Advancements in Medical Training and Healthcare
The Impact of Bubonic Plague on Europe
Q: What is the history of bubonic plague in Europe?
A: Bubonic plague arrived in Europe during the fourteenth century and continued to plague the continent for centuries. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the lack of sanitation and ignorance about the transmission of the disease led to numerous outbreaks, which caused a significant amount of suffering and death.
Q: What was the cause of bubonic plague?
A: The disease was transmitted through fleas that lived parasitically on rats. The fleas would bite rats, who were largely immune to the disease, and then bite humans, transmitting the disease in the process.
Q: Were there any notable examples of the impact of bubonic plague on cities or individuals?
A: Yes, one example was Barcelona, which suffered from a significant outbreak of the disease in 1650 that killed approximately a third of the city’s population. Another example was the tanner Miquel Parets, who lost his wife and three children within a month.
Religious Practices in Mitigating Plague
Q: Did people have any remedies or beliefs to mitigate the spread of bubonic plague?
A: Yes, people resorted to various religious practices, such as praying, processions, and dedicating shrines to the plague saints to seek divine protection and mercy. However, these practices had limited success in preventing or mitigating the spread of the disease.
Q: Why did these practices have limited success?
A: These practices did not address the underlying cause of the disease, which was the unsanitary living conditions and the presence of rats that carried the fleas that transmitted the disease.
Improvements in Public Health
Q: Did public health improve during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?
A: Yes, between 1648-1815, various changes in public health contributed to the decline and eventual disappearance of bubonic plague, such as improved sanitation practices, quarantine regulations, and the decline of the black rat population.
Q: Did the decline of one disease mean the end of deadly diseases?
A: No, other diseases like smallpox replaced the plague and proved to be even more deadly, with an estimated 400,000 deaths annually in the eighteenth century.
Smallpox and the Humoral Theory of Health
Q: Can you explain smallpox and how it was treated during this period?
A: Smallpox was a deadly disease that primarily affected children and young adults. It was treated based on the humoral theory of health, which involved draining excess fluids through laxatives, emetics, dehydration, and phlebotomy. However, many of these treatments did more harm than good and failed to cure the disease.
Q: Was there any progress made in understanding the cause of smallpox?
A: Yes, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s observation of Turkish inoculation practices led to the discovery of inoculation and later vaccination against smallpox.
The Rise of Vaccination
Q: Can you explain the development of the smallpox vaccine?
A: In 1798, Edward Jenner published An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, which described the vaccine he had developed to prevent smallpox. By 1801, the technique had gained widespread acceptance and was made compulsory in several countries including Sweden and Bavaria.
Q: What was the impact of vaccination on mortality rates?
A: The vaccine resulted in a significant reduction of deaths from the virus, particularly in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Advancements in Medical Training and Healthcare
Q: Was there any progress made in medical training and healthcare during this period?
A: Yes, clinical training emerged in a few places, giving aspiring physicians the opportunity to learn their profession at the bedsides of real patients. There was also progress in the understanding of disease during this period, with a move away from a humoral view to one centered on the material structure of the body and a growing practice of post-mortems to boost anatomy and pathology.
Q: Were there any other medical discoveries made during this period?
A: No, many medical discoveries such as germ theory, general anesthesia, radiology, and antibiotics were not made until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The history of the plague, smallpox, and vaccination in Europe highlights the importance of scientific experimentation and observation in improving public health. The development of the smallpox vaccine, in particular, demonstrates how advances in science and medicine can lead to significant reductions in mortality rates. While there was some progress made in medical training and healthcare during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many medical discoveries were not made until later centuries. However, the study of the history of disease can provide insights and guidance for addressing current and future health challenges.