Preparing for an Epidemic in the Eighteenth Century

Tonight BBC2 will be airing a show called Winter Viruses and How to Beat Them. The news was recently filled, of course, with reports on rapidly spreading epidemics of influenza and norovirus; medical historian Alun Withey even blogged about the contemporary and seventeenth-century fascination with the spread of disease. What intrigues me, however, is the actions people took to deal with their fear of disease.

In late May 1720, the plague entered Marseilles, the major trading port in South France, on ships coming in from Levant. The plague rapidly spready throughout the city in the next few months, disrupting commerce and daily life. The French government intervened with strict quarantine measures for both sick people and incoming ships.

Contemporary engraving of the Marseilles plague in 1720, the Quartier Belsunce. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile: back in England… South Sea stocks had been rising in an unrealistic way over the summer months, only to crash in September, resulting in bankrupt investors and panic spreading like an epidemic. Health suddenly became of national interest: protecting the teetering economy became of paramount importance. The fear? That the Marseilles plague might infect Britain via the trade routes.

The Lords Justices called in physician Richard Mead to consider how the plague might be prevented “for the Publick Safety” in 1720. That autumn, the Board of Trade and Plantations investigated methods of quarantine used elsewhere and recommended that Parliament bring in more border control and wider quarantine powers. But it was not until October 1721 that more decisive action was taken.

This time, Sir Hans Sloane, John Arbuthnot and Mead were summoned. In Sloane’s papers (British Library Sloane MS 4034), there are rough drafts of their advice for the Council on how to collect better information about contagious diseases from Bills of Mortality and how to set up barracks near London for quarantines. By December 1721, a Bill was passed that allowed the King to stop trade with infected countries, order fire on any potentially infected ship, establish a domestic military presence, quarantine towns, and remove the sick to lazarettos. The bill was widely criticised for being un-British and something that would only cause more fear. The French, critics argued, were more used to a standing army and harsh measures that limited people’s rights.

Even after the Bill was passed, complaints continued. Some of Sloane’s correspondents scolded him for allowing these “somewhat severe” recommendations.  ‘Belinda’ dramatically claimed that the country was “almost ruined by south sea” by a corrupt government, while “to complet the misery by the advice of Mead that scotch quack [Arbuthnot] wee are to be shutt up in pest houses garded by soldeirs and hired watchmen”. She begged that Sloane intervene: “it is commonly said that you Sr. was not for this barbarous act and I am very willing to… belive you were not haveing alwayes approved your self a person of great charity to thee poor”. The name ‘Belinda’ probably did not refer to a real woman, but was a pseudonym referencing Alexander Pope’s poem, “The Rape of the Lock”, in which Belinda appears as a satiric personification of Britain. Belinda’s letter, nonetheless, captures the fear that many people had about the Bill. The message was clear: the proposed cure for the nation was worse than the disease.

Little did Belinda know just how harsh the initial report by Mead, Arbuthnot and Sloane had been! In their rough draft, the doctors had actually recommended that searchers report any cases immediately to the Council of Health “on pain of death”, that medical practitioners and household heads face severe financial penalties for not alerting authorities, and that any Officers dealing with the plague wear special markings. These, at least, had not appeared in the Bill…

By February 1721/2, Parliament was forced to reconsider the Act and repealed the clauses about domestic measures. When the plague ended in 1722, the British government had not needed to invoke its new act. Sloane may have appeared to the concerned citizens as a possible ally because of his reputation of being charitable, but he also acted to represent and enforce state power.

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