Tracking mortality, 350 years ago

I know a number of people are keeping diaries at the moment, to set down our thoughts and experiences of these strange days. We’re not the first to do that, of course.

Diary of Samuel Pepys shows how life under the bubonic plague mirrored today’s pandemicThe Conversation
For Pepys and the inhabitants of London, there was no way of knowing whether an outbreak of the plague that occurred in the parish of St. Giles, a poor area outside the city walls, in late 1664 and early 1665 would become an epidemic.

The plague first entered Pepys’ consciousness enough to warrant a diary entry on April 30, 1665: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City,” he wrote, “it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.”

Just a few months later …

In London, the Company of Parish Clerks printed “bills of mortality,” the weekly tallies of burials. Because these lists noted London’s burials – not deaths – they undoubtedly undercounted the dead. Just as we follow these numbers closely today, Pepys documented the growing number of plague victims in his diary.

At the end of August, he cited the bill of mortality as having recorded 6,102 victims of the plague, but feared “that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000,” mostly because the victims among the urban poor weren’t counted. A week later, he noted the official number of 6,978 in one week, “a most dreadfull Number.”

Samuel Pepys wasn’t the only one keeping a record of events.

Coronavirus: Defoe’s account of the Great Plague of 1665 has startling parallels with todayThe Conversation
HF [the narrator] becomes obsessed with the weekly mortality figures. They charted deaths by parish, giving a picture of how the plague was moving around the city. Still, it was impossible to be sure who had died directly of the disease, just as in the BBC news today we hear people have died “with” rather than “of” COVID-19. Reporting was difficult, partly because people were reluctant to admit there was an infection in the family. After all, they might be locked in their homes to catch the disease and die.

HF is appalled by those who opened up taverns and spent their days and nights drinking, mocking anyone who objected. At one point he confronts a group of rowdies and gets a torrent of abuse in return. Later, exhibiting one of his less appealing traits, he is gratified to hear that they all caught the plague and died.

Here’s a look at those Bills of Mortality in greater detail.

London’s dreadful visitation: A year of weekly death statistics during the Great Plague (1665)The Public Domain Review
As early as 1592, London parish officials had instituted a system for keeping track of deaths in the city, trying to curb the spread of the plague by tracking it and quarantining victims and those who lived with them. Since it was not then legally required to report deaths to a central authority, the officials hired “searchers of the dead”, whose job it was to locate corpses, examine them, and determine cause of death. These “searchers” were not trained in any kind of medicine. Typically they were poor, illiterate, older women whose contact with the infected isolated them socially and often brought their lives to an early end. They were also, in one of the more gruesome examples of gig work offered by history, paid per body. […]

In addition to the alarming number of plague deaths, Londoners, of course, continued to die by other means, both familiar and strange.

Many familiar maladies hide behind the enigmatic naming. “Rising of the Lights”, dreamy though it sounds, was a seventeenth-century term for any death associated with respiratory trouble (“lights” being a word for lungs). “Griping in the guts” and “Stopping of the stomach” were similarly used for deaths accompanied by gastrointestinal complaints. “Spotted feaver” was most likely typhus or meningitis.

Many labels — such as “suddenly”, “frighted”, and “grief” — speak of the often approximate nature of assigning a cause (not carried out by medical professionals but rather the “searchers”). “Planet” referred to any illness thought to have been caused by the negative influence/position of one of the planets at the time (a similar astrological source lies behind the name Influenza, literally influence).

Meanwhile.

This guy used an old Samsung monitor to make a legendary plague doctor maskDesign You Trust
Employees of the IT industry sometimes have to communicate with users. And they also need protection – like the legendary mask of the plague doctor, but with nuances. User of Pikabu social network used an old Samsung SyncMaster monitor to make this mask by himself. The result is amazing!