Those who stayed in London did all they could to protect themselves from the plague. As no one knew what caused the plague, most of these were based around superstition. In 1665 the College of Physicians issued a directive that brimstone ‘burnt plentiful’ was recommended for a cure for the bad air that caused the plague. Those employed in the collection of bodies frequently smoked tobacco to avoid catching the plague.
“For personal disinfections nothing enjoyed such favour as tobacco; the belief in it was widespread, and even children were made to light up a reaf in pipes. Thomas Hearnes remembers one Tom Rogers telling him that when he was a scholar at Eton in the year that the great plague raged, all the boys smoked in school by order, and that he was never whipped so much in his life as he was one morning for not smoking. It was long afterwards a tradition that none who kept a tobacconist shop in London had the plague.” A J Bell writing in about 1700.
Other methods were also used to keep the plague away. When money was used in day-to-day transactions in shops or at market, it was placed in a bowl of vinegar rather than being handed over to the recipient. At markets, meat was not handed over by hand rather but by a joint being attached to a hook.
The wearing of lucky charms was also common – and recommended by doctors. Ambroise Pare, a physician, introduced new methods for treating gunshot wounds – but he still believed that a lucky charm would keep away the plague. Dr. George Thomson wore a dead toad around his neck.
The Church had a more basic way of protecting yourself against the plague. It recommended prayer and then more prayer.
Those who could afford health certificates were allowed to leave London, such as Dr Alston, the President of the College of Physicians. This mainly meant that the rich could leave London while the poor stayed in the city. Leaving the city was an obvious way of protecting yourself against the plague.
Charlatans who stayed in London set themselves up as doctors. They sold plague ‘cures’ at high prices. There were many who were willing to try these quack cures as few had any other alternative. ‘Plague water’ was a popular cure as was powered unicorn horn and frogs legs. What actually went into powered unicorn horn is not known. Putting the tail feathers of a live chicken onto buboes drew out the poison allowing the patient to recover – so people were told.
Has anything really changed since 1665? Charlatans still set themselves up as doctors. I didn’t know the College of Physicians was already in existence in 1665. I imagine that the entire College of Physicians – all charlatans to a man – wore dead toads around their necks, as their 21st century counterparts in the Royal College of Physicians doubtless still do. I can even imagine that Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies – who has told people to “think of cancer” when drinking a glass of wine – might wear a dead toad around her neck too. What better symbol of magical thinking?
For I’ve begun to think that the medical profession has made no progress in the last 350 years. There was perhaps a brief period, between about 1880 and 1940, when medicine became rational and scientific, and tremendous advances were achieved. But now the briefly-dispelled medieval mindset of superstition and credulity has rolled back in, like a thick fog, and many physicians appear to seriously believe that the habit of smoking is itself a disease, and that environmental tobacco smoke is as lethal as VX gas.
And are all the various pharma products currently available – e.g. Chantix, Champix, Chumpix – really any different from plague water, powdered unicorn horn, eye of newt, or toe of frog? Yes, they’re packaged as pop-out capsules in little white cardboard boxes in the approved 21st century style. But when it’s all boiled down to it, aren’t they just so many blue glass vials holding rhinoceros horn, asafoetida grass, or vinegar, arrayed on the dusty shelves of an apothecary’s shoppe? They are, after all, supposed to work in entirely magical ways to treat diseases that have themselves been magically acquired (simply by smoking cigarettes, “bad air”). The style may be different, but the substance is the same.
I read again today that the World Health Organization (WHO) defined health in its 1948 constitution as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Perhaps the word they were looking for was “bliss”? It was once bliss to sit in a smoky pub with a beer and a cigarette and a few friends. It was a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. Now, thanks to the meddling witch doctors in the WHO, doubtless all wearing dead toads around their necks, we have complete physical, mental, and social unwell-being.
We’d probably be better off if, instead of taking their pop-out brimstone tablets to treat our smoking-related cholera, we just prayed to St Anthony instead.