Houston, Texas, United States
Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel [i.e Dr. Beak], a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome. From the Internet Archive’s copy of Eugen Hollände Die Karikatur und Satire in der Medizin: Medico-Kunsthistorische Studie von Professor Dr. Eugen Holländer. circa 1656.
Throughout history humanity has faced many epidemics and pandemics that caused panic and massive casualties. Although in modern times pathogens have shifted from bacteria to viruses, each new epidemic brings back fears of diseases from the past such as bubonic plague, cholera, typhoid, and leprosy.
Society has usually responded to the threat of spreading diseases by preventing the movement of suspected affected individuals. The word “quarantine” originated from the Italian quaranta giorni,1 meaning forty days. This was how long infected ships and people were to be kept isolated until proven free from disease.
The same process of isolation was practiced in earlier times. Christianity gave priests and church leaders the authority to check and isolate affected individuals during epidemics. During the Islamic era, the first isolation ward was established in a Damascus hospital to separate patients with leprosy from others.2
The Doctor of Plague engravings and paintings Doktor Schnabel von Rome (Doctor Beak from Rome)3 show the dress of physicians dealing with the plague epidemic. The long oversized gown was for physical protection, the eyes were covered with thick glasses, and the mouth and nose were protected by a beak that probably had some herbs and functioned as a filter. The doctor carried a metal stick so he could examine patients without touching them with his hands. Modern biological isolation garments still have features reminiscent of this image.
Historically, religious and political leaders have blamed opponents for causing epidemics. Some diseases were thought to be caused by curses or witchcraft. During the early period of the HIV epidemic, some conservative religious groups considered the infection as a punishment from God against homosexuals. Currently, the idea that the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) was spread from a biological research laboratory or as a biological weapon has been tossed back and forth between countries. Official responses to the epidemic have been used politically by different parties.
Epidemics have also been portrayed in literature even centuries after their occurrence. In the seventeenth century, Jean de La Fontaine dedicated one of his fables to “The Animals Sick of the Plague”:
“One of those dread evils which spread terror far and wide, and which Heaven, in its anger, ordains for the punishment of wickedness upon earth”4
In the eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe wrote his novel Journal of a Plague Year in which a man describes his experiences during the Great Plague of 1665. Another novel, The Plague, published in 1947 was a masterwork of the French writer Albert Camus. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Colombian Nobel prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez in 1985, was translated into several languages and achieved worldwide acclaim.
Composers have also written music describing the fear and suffering during epidemics and celebrating their disappearance. Fanny Mendelssohn, a composer and older sister of Felix, wrote her cantata Choleramusik to celebrate the victory over a cholera epidemic.5
In conclusion, epidemics have usually been periods of great fear and anxiety. This is often followed by a scramble to create new regulations, and often features the blame game. When an epidemic is over, it is filed away in history and sometimes reflected in great works of art.
- Sayili, Aydin. The Emergence of the Prototype of the Modern Hospital in Medieval Islam. Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation. 2006
- The Original Fables of La Fontaine. Trans. Frederick Colin Tilney. New York: E.P Dutton& Company, 22,1913
- “Music in the Time of Cholera: Fanny’s Cantatas” https://www.classical-scene.com/2019/03/09/fanny-cantatas/
MICHAEL YAFI, MD, is an Associate Professor and Director for The Division of Pediatric Endocrinology at UTHealth, (The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston).