Tag Archives: microbes

10 July: Going viral LXXXIII, PPE and bad science.

Mrs Turnstone was talking about a neighbour who cannot visit elderly friends because her partner refuses to take the Covid-19 vaccine in any form, yet they are the products of good science and hygienic manufacturing.

The picture above shows a 17th Century plague doctor in full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). It was not realised that the black rats around his feet were beset with fleas which passed the plague onto humans. The Doctor was well protected against airborne diseases, not against fleas. Note the poppies at hand to prepare opiate drugs, still very much in use today.

Another disease that was thought to come from bad air was the ague, a Northern European strain of mal – aria, that is bad – air. 150 years after the plague doctor appeared in Canterbury (you can see him on the mural in the subway by St George’s and the bus station), WIlliam Hutton wrote An History of Birmingham (1783). He attributed the absence of ague to the air of Birmingham, which stands on red sandstone, a free-draining rock. Hutton wrote:

Thus eminently situated, the sun can exercise his full powers of exhalation. The foundation upon which this mistress of the arts is erected, is one solid mass of dry reddish sand. The vapours that rise from the earth are the great promoters of disease; but here, instead of the moisture ascending to the prejudice of the inhabitant, the contrary is evident; for the water descends through the pores of the sand, so that even our very cellars are habitable. This accounts for the almost total extinction of the ague among us:–During a residence of thirty years, I have never seen one person afflicted with it, though, by the opportunities of office, I have frequently visited the repositories of the sick.

Thus peculiarly favoured, this happy spot, enjoys four of the greatest benefits that can attend human existence–water, air, the sun, and a situation free from damps.

Like tropical malaria, the ague depends on mosquitoes to spread among humans. Mosquitoes need still water to breathe, perhaps especially drainage ditches and ponds, less and less common in what was becoming a major built up area. And there was plenty of pollution in the air from factories great and small burning coal, but still Hutton was jumping to conclusions.

. . . . .

We have much to be grateful for. Thirteen years after Hutton’s history, Edward Jenner gave the first cowpox vaccination, which would eventually lead to the abolition of smallpox, and inspired so much progress in public health. Now to get at the covid virus around the world!

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