All Commentary
Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Plague Is Very Hot

Reflections on disease in the time of Ebola

Samuel Pepys. Diary. 1660–1669.

This week, media headlines and my Facebook feed are filled with stories like these:

“Texas Town Quarantined after Family of Five Test Positive for the Ebola Virus”

“Battle over Ebola Travel Ban”

“Infected Ebola Patients Flee after Attack on Clinic”

“Cruise Ship Docks with Ebola-Watched Health Worker”

“Doctor: Ebola Might Be Transmitted in Air via ‘Droplets’”

That means that, for one final time, this column is turning to the pages of Samuel Pepys's great 17th century diary — because these stories sound like they could have been lifted from the London news that Pepys followed so avidly.

The disease that terrified Pepys and haunted London in the terrible year of 1665 was not Ebola, of course, but the plague. So virulent that deaths in one week for London and its suburbs reached 7,000, and so lethal that death could occur within hours of the first symptoms, the plague was London’s horror story.

And Pepys recorded it all.

Less sensational than Daniel Defoe’s later fictionalized account, A Journal of the Plague Year, Pepys’s 1665 diary still makes for chilling reading. It is perhaps all the more chilling because it isn’t sensational. It’s just Pepys, telling you about his life, which sounds so much like ours.

And so when Pepys goes to Starbucks the coffeehouse in Corn-Hill to get the news and hears that “the plague is got to Amsterdam, brought by a ship from Argier; and it is also carried to Hambrough” (October 19, 1663), we have the sense not only of historical inevitability — we know exactly how bad the plague is going to get in the next 18 months — but also the sense that Pepys is eerily reporting on our own 21st-century stories and concerns. We too are anxiously getting the news every day to follow the path of a disease coming from faraway places.

Our concerns about travel and about cruise ships and airplanes coming in from infected countries mirror Pepys’s worries. He anxiously records, over the course of months, the state of the plague among the Dutch, with whom the English had countless trade and military connections during this period.

June 16, 1664

The talk upon the 'Change is, that De Ruyter is dead, with fifty men of his own ship, of the plague, at Cales.…

June 22, 1664

At noon to the 'Change and Coffee-house, where great talke of the Dutch preparing of sixty sayle of ships. The plague grows mightily among them, both at sea and land.

July 25, 1664

Thence back again homewards, and Sir W. Batten and I to the Coffee-house, but no newes, only the plague is very hot still, and encreases among the Dutch.

Open borders have always made us wealthy. And their implications — ease of movement for people, ideas, and diseases — have always made us nervous.

As plague begins to come to London, Pepys’s experiences continue to mirror our own. We read of families quarantined in Texas, and Pepys notes the appearance of the first houses of quarantine in London: “This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there — which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw” (June 7, 1665).

Fears about medical or government conspiracies to cover up the spread of Ebola — unfounded or not — mirror Pepys’s concerns about the inaccuracy of the reporting of the numbers of plague deaths “partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them” (August 31, 1665). We worry about fleeing Ebola patients spreading the disease further, and Pepys recounts grisly stories of encounters with the corpses of plague victims and with the occasional “walking dead” victim escaping quarantine and roaming the streets of London.

Mr. Marr telling me by the way how a mayde servant of Mr. John Wright’s … falling sick of the plague, she was removed to an out-house, and a nurse appointed to look to her; who, being once absent, the mayde got out of the house at the window, and run away. The nurse coming and knocking, and having no answer, believed she was dead, and went and told Mr. Wright so; who and his lady were in great strait what to do to get her buried. At last resolved to go to Burntwood hard by, being in the parish, and there get people to do it. But they would not; so he went home full of trouble, and in the way met the wench walking over the common, which frighted him worse than before; and was forced to send people to take her, which he did; and they got one of the pest coaches and put her into it to carry her to a pest house. And passing in a narrow lane, Sir Anthony Browne, with his brother and some friends in the coach, met this coach with the curtains drawn close. The brother … thrust his head out of his own into her coach, and to look, and there saw somebody look very ill, and in a sick dress, and stunk mightily; which the coachman also cried out upon. And presently they come up to some people that stood looking after it, and told our gallants that it was a mayde of Mr. Wright’s carried away sick of the plague; which put the young gentleman into a fright had almost cost him his life, but is now well again. [August 3, 1665]

This ghastly vision of a playful young man peeking into a coach to flirt with a mysterious woman but encountering a plague victim instead makes a dark little morality tale that we are sure to see repeated in urban legends about Ebola today.

My point is not that Ebola will do the grim work of the plague of 1665, and I abhor the occasional suggestion that it would be a “good thing” if it did. My point is merely to say that history and the voice of Samuel Pepys, yet again, provide us with a way to consider what is happening to us now and the way we respond to it by remembering what has happened to us in the past and the way we responded then.

I celebrated Pepys a few weeks ago for providing us with an example of the way that medical technology has silently and radically increased our wealth in the centuries that separate him from us. Rereading his diary of the plague reminds me that our increase in medical knowledge has not changed us as humans. We still have the same fears, the same tendency to panic, and the same desire to quarantine, to close borders, to flee when we fear we are under the threat of disease. Our instinct is understandable. It has kept us alive as a species for thousands of years. But how do we engage the better angels of our nature?

Neither Pepys nor I have solutions for the problematic ways that atavistic fear can counter and undermine our better information about disease and about transmission. I leave that to the epidemiologists. But as William H. McNeill reminded the American Historical Association in 1985, answers are not necessarily what history gives us. It gives us “no more and no less than carefully and critically constructed collective memory. As such it can both make us wiser in our public choices and more richly human in our private lives.” And it can help us think more carefully about “the unending effort to understand ourselves and others, and what happens and will happen to us and to them, time without end.”