Thursday, July 3, 2014

Y is for Yersinia Pestis (and other plagues and evils)

Yersinia pestis bacterium, viewed through a scanning electron microscope
photograph in public domain
source: Wikimedia Commons

 I. The Time Warp, Part I:

Yanking and tugging, my then-boyfriend (who has long since become my husband) and I managed to get my bags from the Gatwick train onto the sidewalk. It was early July of 1981. We were going to spend the night camped out on the seats in the departure lounge at the international terminal, and then I would snag a stand-by ticket for Boston. By having the two of us keep watch over the luggage, nothing would get stolen.

He slept (or it seemed to me that he did); I did not. The next morning, my ticket in hand, we decided to cut up some cheese for breakfast. I knew I had my Swiss Army Knife when we were eating pizza on the train, but that morning it was nowhere to be found. I was very careful of that knife; it was a birthday present from my parents the year before and I was aware that I shouldn’t brandish it too much in public, so maybe it was already in my suitcase, although I had been planning to use it to cut up more food on the plane. I found a plastic knife, and we had our cheese.

By the time I got onto the aircraft, I had searched my baggage three times for the Swiss Army Knife. Upon reflection, I realized that it had probably gone missing on the train, either stolen or lost between the crevices of the seat, when I slipped away for a minute and left it with half a slice of pizza. How I was going to explain that one to my parents was beyond me. However, I did have some money from them for this year’s birthday. If used prudently, I could pick up one item on sale that would be “the birthday present;” the rest would pay to replace the Swiss Army Knife, and no one would be the wiser. If anyone used the original to commit a crime over the summer, I was not in England and I had an alibi. In any case, my fingerprints were not on record.

I settled into my seat on the plane. The flight attendant asked if I would like the day’s New York Times. There was nothing unusual in the news except for one item in an inside page, a follow-up to a piece that we had probably missed because of work constraints.  Some 41 men were suffering from an exceptionally aggressive stain of the rare Kaposi’s Sarcoma, and neither the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta nor anyone else knew what to make of it, except that it was possible that the sarcoma was secondary to something sexually transmitted.

“There is as yet no evidence of contagion,” read the New York Times article. By the end of the year, that statement was proved to have been as tragically naive as later generations would find the thought of the open display or use of pen knives on public transportation. That we were personally unaffected by neither of the ensuing disasters was primarily a question of luck. In the instance of HIV/AIDS, our good fortune was the result of not needing a blood transfusion in those early days of the epidemic and the fact that we happened to be heterosexuals in a low risk pool in England and North America. Those in a high risk pool would have had no idea what they had done to get there — not until months or years later, when the disease was better understood but the damage was already done.

Likewise, we were nowhere near an airport on September 11, 2001. Amongst our immediate circle, one of my old friends from high school decided at the last minute not to fly from New York to a conference in California; another high school friend, a banker whose office was in another part of the Trade Center complex, also happened to be out of harm’s way. In terms of both the 9/11 attacks and the HIV/AIDS epidemics, many, many others were not so lucky.

II. The Time Warp, Part II:
I feel a similar sense of unreality reading the 1665 portion of The Journal of George Fox. I do not mean to imply that his circumstances were similar to my then-boyfriend’s and mine in the summer of 1981, only that all of our situations may look out of kilter through the lens of history. In late 1664 and 1665 (pp. 474-500 in the Nickalls edition), George Fox was playing a game of cat and mouse with judges in the north of England, while Margaret Fell had been imprisoned with a sentence of praemunire, indefinite preemptive detention. He was once again in trouble for refusing to take the oath to the King, on the grounds that he was following the Biblical injunction for his “yea” to be “yea” and his “nay,” “nay.” The judges described in the Journal did not wish to imprison him; it was becoming clear that Quakers were not causing civil unrest, and from the vantage point of the Crown it was more worth their time to use the loyalty oath as a way to imprison Roman Catholic dissidents, thus helping secure Protestant hegemony. Nevertheless, the authorities had not yet accepted the Quaker movement, or other Protestants, for that matter. At different points Fox tied up the courts by noting what we nowadays might call “accidental-on-purpose” errors in the indictments or the transcript of the oath itself. 

Scarborough Castle
photograph by Humphrey Bolton of
uploaded from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license

Ultimately, George Fox was imprisoned in Scarborough, and other Friends were banished, in an episode that would have appeared to some members of the broader public, even at the time, as cruel and pointless. It seems especially pointless —indeed, it looks like absolute lunacy— when we consider that the real danger in England that particular year was far to the south, in London. That danger came in the form of the plague.  The type of plague that devastated the population of London and its suburbs from 1664-1667, primarily from the spring of 1665 through the late winter of 1666, is now widely considered to be pneumonic plague, deriving from a form of the bacterium yersinia pestis. Yersinia pestis infects fleas and closes their foreguts. When they try to feed by biting a human being, they regurgitate the yersinia pestis bacterium into the wound, thus infecting the person. The fleas are carried by rodents. In the pneumonic form of the plague, transmission occurs between people, through droplets spread by coughing; the mortality rate of untreated pneumonic plague is close to 100 per cent.

In the outbreak at the time of George Fox, the carrier was the black rat (rattus rattus), which traveled in maritime cargoes to England from the European continent. According to the Diary of Samuel Pepys and other sources, it was identified in Amsterdam in October of 1663 and arrived in London in May of 1665.  It quickly defeated any attempts at quarantine. Before the pandemic petered out in the first half of 1666, somewhere between 75,000 and 100,00 people had died in London and its immediate vicinity out of a population of about 460,000.  Determining the number of victims was complicated by the lack of a central secular office keeping statistics of births and deaths. London relied on parish registers for its weekly Bill of Mortality, a system which was highly inaccurate given the number of people in the city who interred their dead elsewhere or who were not Anglicans registered in a local parish. This latter number included Roman Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Friends, and others. It was well known at the time that Quakers did not report the deaths of their own group to the parish registrars (cf. Samuel Pepys’ diary note of August 31, 1665); instead, they kept records of their own and used their own burial grounds for a number of plague victims, including some who were not Friends and whom they may have nursed and buried to their own detriment. Like others, Friends were heavily hit by the plague. Because of Quaker business contacts with the Netherlands, Friends were reasonably well informed by the standards of the day. George Fox (pp. 493-4) refers to a plague-infested ship sailing to Barbados that included Quaker passengers; the captain was a ruthless man who kept the Friends below deck, suffering the loss of most of his seamen in the confined quarters. (For the overall demographics and death rates of Friends during the period that includes the plague, see Gill Newton and Richard Smith, “Convergence or divergence? Mortality in London, its suburbs and its hinterland between 1550 and 1750,” Annales de démographie historique 2013/2 no. 126, pp. 17-49; and John Landers, “London’s mortality in the “long eighteenth century”: a family reconstitution study,” Medical History, vol. 35, suppl. S 11, Jan. 1991, pp. 1-28.)

While London was buckling under the weight of the plague, George Fox was trying to keep from becoming a statistic of the conditions in Scarborough jail. The warden himself, Sir Jordan Crosland, was well disposed toward him; it was the squalor in which Fox was forced to live that nearly did him in. In the middle of 1666, as the plague burned itself out, Fox learned that only an entreaty to the King would have a hope of securing his release. John Whitehead and Ellis Hookes, together with Esquire Marsh, went to Sir John Birkenhead, the Master of Requests, in August to see about having Fox released. Birkenhead obtained the order to free him, which he sent to Crosland up in Scarborough. George Fox was released on September 1, 1666, having been given a letter of safe passage by the warden. Fox and Crosland remained on good terms for the rest of Crosland’s life.

September 1 was to be the last day of calm that the English people were to see in the year 1666. On September 2 a massive fire broke out in London, consuming much of the city over the course of three days.

It would be lovely to say that George Fox, a man ahead of his time in several major areas of religious and social thought, was a visionary in his understanding of the fire. Unfortunately, that would not be true. Fox had had a vision of such a conflagration: “And then I saw that the Lord God was true and just in his word that he had showed me before in Lancaster Gaol. <The people of London were forewarned of this fire>: yet few people laid it to heart but grew rather more wicked and higher in pride.” (p. 503, as edited by Nickalls) Fox, however, did not entirely succumb to the sentiment that the people of London had received their just deserts. When he learned the details of the fire, he noted with sympathy the many people of both sexes (Friends and others) who went naked or in sackcloth, which he took as signs of repentance and not trauma, as we might today. Fox then proceeded to condemn the authorities, who tended to whip, imprison, or otherwise abuse these devastated men and women.

In many respects, we are all people of our time, whatever that time is. During the great plague of 1665 Londoners, like others who suffered from the bubonic or pneumonic plague from the late Middle Ages through the Early Modern period, killed cats and dogs in the tens of thousands, with the thought that these animals had spread the disease. We now know that rats carried the fleas and that cats in particular were one of the few types of assistance available. Likewise, although we have all been taught to view Schadenfreude as morally reprehensible, it is understandable that Fox would feel some perverse sense of Divine justice.

The New York Times article from July 3, 1981 describing what we now know as AIDS-related sequelae is also a product of its period. Indeed, we hope that future generations will look back at ours and consider our scientific knowledge to be primitive at best. In particular, tomorrow is not too soon for an exponential increase in our ability to deal with Ebola, a pestilence that is even more pernicious and terrifying than pneumonic plague.

As far as the Swiss Army Knife is concerned, many of us who carried them with us in our carry-on luggage when we flew a generation ago wondered what the authorities were thinking when we were allowed to do it. On the other hand, our pride in airport security —whether justified or not— is as much a deadly sin as the pride George Fox perceived in the Londoners in 1666.

We are all proud. To provide a rather petty example, for nearly 33 years I managed to securely move my replacement Swiss Army Knife (i.e., birthday present number two) from my purse or briefcase to my checked luggage. I felt rather pleased with myself after all this time. Then, after I used it to clip a snagged fingernail en route to a wedding reception a few days ago, it turned up missing. It’s not in my purse, camera bag, briefcase, or car. My father would hardly be upset this time; he had to replace his after it was confiscated at the entrance to the Smithsonian. My husband had to give up his knife last year when he ran out of time at airport security to mail it back home. I bought him another of the same type for an anniversary present.
The Great Fire of London, with Ludgate and Old St. Paul's
anonymous artist, ca. 1670
Yale Center for British Art
painting in public domain
uploaded from Wikimedia Commons

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