Great plague facts: The Great Plague 1665 — the Black Death

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The Great Plague 1665 — the Black Death

In two successive years of the 17th century London suffered two terrible disasters. In the spring and summer of 1665 an outbreak of Bubonic Plague spread from parish to parish until thousands had died and the huge pits dug to receive the bodies were full. In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the centre of London, but also helped to kill off some of the black rats and fleas that carried the plague bacillus.

Bubonic Plague was known as the Black Death and had been known in England for centuries. It was a ghastly disease. The victim’s skin turned black in patches and inflamed glands or ‘buboes’ in the groin, combined with compulsive vomiting, swollen tongue and splitting headaches made it a horrible, agonizing killer.

The plague started in the East, possibly China, and quickly spread through Europe. Whole communities were wiped out and corpses littered the streets as there was no one left to bury them.

Buboes in a victim of plague

It began in London in the poor, overcrowded parish of St. Giles-in-the-Field. It started slowly at first but by May of 1665, 43 had died. In June 6137 people died, in July 17036 people and at its peak in August, 31159 people died. In all, 15% of the population perished during that terrible summer.

Incubation took a mere four to six days and when the plague appeared in a household, the house was sealed, thus condemning the whole family to death! These houses were distinguished by a painted red cross on the door and the words, ‘Lord have mercy on us’. At night the corpses were brought out in answer to the cry,’ Bring out your dead’, put in a cart and taken away to the plague pits. One called the Great Pit was at Aldgate in London and another at Finsbury Fields.

The King, Charles II and his Court left London and fled to Oxford. Those people who could sent their families away from London during these months, but the poor had no recourse but to stay.

In his diary, Samuel Pepys gives a vivid account of the empty streets in London, as all who could had left in an attempt to flee the pestilence.

It was believed that holding a posy of flowers to the nose kept away the plague and to this day judges are still given a nose-gay to carry on ceremonial occasions as a protection against the plague!

A song about the plague is still sung by children. ‘Ring-a-ring of roses‘ describes in great detail the symptoms of the plague and ends with ‘All fall down’. The last word, ‘dead’, is omitted today.

The plague spread to many parts of England. York was one city badly affected. The plague victims were buried outside the city walls and it is said that they have never been disturbed since then, as a precaution against a resurgence of the dreaded plague. The grassy embankments below the city walls are the sites of these plague pits.

The Plague Window, Eyam Church

A small village in Derbyshire called Eyam, 6 miles north of Bakewell, has a story of tragedy and courage that will always be remembered.

In 1665 a box of laundry was brought to Eyam by a traveller. The laundry was found to be infested with fleas, and the epidemic started.

80% of the people died here and there could have been a terrible outbreak in Derbyshire had the village not had a courageous rector called William Mompesson. He persuaded the villagers not to flee the village and so spread the infection, but to stay until the plague had run its course. His wife was one of the many victims and her tomb can be seen in Eyam churchyard.

Mompesson preached in the open air during the time of the plague, on a rock in a dell now called Cucklett Church. Every year a Commemorative Service is held here on the last Sunday in August. During their ‘siege’ the villagers dropped money for provisions into a well so as not to spread the infection on the coins.

Mompesson’s Well

In some towns and villages in England there are still the old market crosses which have a depression at the foot of the stone cross. This was filled with vinegar during times of plague as it was believed that vinegar would kill any germs on the coins and so contain the disease.

The plague lasted in London until the late autumn when the colder weather helped kill off the fleas.

Over the centuries Bubonic Plague has broken out in Europe and the Far East. In 1900 there were outbreaks of plague in places as far apart as Portugal and Australia.

Influenza seems to be the modern form of plague. At the end of World War One an influenza outbreak circled the world during 1918 – 1919. Within a year 20 million people had died world-wide.

The Great Plague of London, 1665 | Contagion

The Great Plague of London in 1665 was the last in a long series of plague epidemics that first began in London in June 1499. The Great Plague killed between 75,000 and 100,000 of London’s rapidly expanding population of about 460,000.

Ainsworth, William Harrison. Old Saint Paul’s :a tale of the plague and the fire. London : Parry, Blenkarn & Co., 1847. BOOK THE THIRD. [JUNE 1665.]. Page: (seq. 248). From the Collection Development Department in Widener Library, HCL.

First suspected in late 1664, London’s plague began to spread in earnest eastwards in April 1665 from the destitute suburb of St. Giles through rat-infested alleys to the crowded and squalid parishes of Whitechapel and Stepney on its way to the walled City of London.

The Great Plague at Its Peak

By September 1665, the death rate had reached 8,000 per week. Helpless municipal authorities threw their earlier caution to the wind and abandoned quarantine measures. Houses containing the dead and dying were no longer locked. London’s mournful silence was broken by the noise of carts carrying the dead for burial in parish churches or communal plague pits such as Finsbury Field in Cripplegate and the open fields in Southwark.

Well-off residents soon fled to the countryside, leaving the poor behind in impoverished and decrepit parishes. Tens of thousands of dogs and cats were killed to eliminate a feared source of contagion, and mounds of rotting garbage were burned. Purveyors of innumerable remedies proliferated, and physicians and surgeons lanced buboes and bled black spots in attempts to cure plague victims by releasing bad bodily humors.

Plague Orders, first issued by the Privy Council in 1578, were still effective in 1665. These edicts prohibited churches from keeping dead bodies on their premises during public assemblies or services, and carriers of the dead had to identify themselves and could not mix with the public.

Samuel Pepys and William Boghurst: Eyewitness Accounts

In his famous diary, Samuel Pepys, a naval administrator and Member of Parliament, conveyed the melancholy image of desperate people wandering the streets in search of relief from the ravages of the plague. His notes during 1665 often intimate the severity of London’s Great Plague epidemic. In July, he lamented “the sad news of the death of so many in the parish of the plague, forty last night, the bell always going . . . either for deaths or burials. ” A month later, when London’s mortality rate rose sharply, Pepys noted that survivors “are fain to carry the dead to be buried by daylight, the nights not sufficing to do it in.”

In another eyewitness account, Loimographia (1665), William Boghurst, a general practitioner who accurately described the symptoms of plague and predicted its demise in 1666, attributed the plague’s causes to filth and squalor, inadequate disposal of sewage, and poor nutrition among London’s impoverished residents. He criticized the standard treatments of bleeding, purging, and fumigating houses and objected to quarantining infected households since this had “oft [been] enough tried and always found ineffectual.”

The Plague Subsides and the Government Reacts

By February 1666, the Great Plague had nearly run its course. It died out during the Great Fire that same year and never returned. Central parts of London were rebuilt with wider streets to relieve crowding and better sewage systems to improve sanitation. London’s Privy Council issued new Plague Orders in May 1666, which banned the burial of future plague victims in parish churches and small churchyards, enforced the use of quicklime at designated burial sites, and strictly prohibited opening graves less than one year after interment as a safeguard against the spread of infection.

The Great Plague in Fictional Literature

The Great Plague appears in fictional works, such as William Harrison Ainsworth’s Old Saint Paul’s (1847) and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), in which he describes London as “quite abandoned to despair.”

Selected Contagion Resources

This is a partial list of digitized materials available in Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. To search or browse all items digitized for the Contagion exhibit, please use the search bar in the top navigation menu or the «Limit Your Search» options in the left navigation menu (accessible from the exhibit’s home page).


  • Gadbury, John. London’s Deliverance Predicted: In a Short Discourse Shewing the Causes of Plagues in General and the Probable Time (God Not Contradicting the Course of Second Causes) When This Present Pest May Abate, etc. London: 1665.
  • Garencières, Theophilus. A Mite Cast into the Treasury of the Famous City of London: Being a Brief and Methodical Discourse of the Nature, Causes, Symptomes, Remedies and Preservation from the Plague, in This Calamitous Year, 1665. London: 1665.
  • Rosewell, Thomas. The Causes & Cure of the Pestilence, or, a Brief Collection of Those Provoking Sins Recorded in the Holy Scriptures, for Which the Lord Hath Usually Sent the Sore Destroying Pestilence or Plague Among a People: Together with Some Special Receipts and Preservativies [sic] against the Further Encrease of This Pestilential Disease, and May Serve as a Seasonable Call from the Lord to Invite All Sorts of People to a Speedy Return unto the Lord, and a Forsaking of Those Sins, Which Otherwise Will Cause the Wrath of the Lord to Break Out Among Us, So That There Will Be No Remedy. London: 1665.
  • Royal College of Physicians of London. Certain Necessary Directions as Well for the Cure of the Plague, as for Preventing the Infection: With Many Easie Medicines of Small Charge, Very Profitable to His Majesties Subjects. 1665.

Publications — The Great Plague at Its Peak

  • The Shutting Up Infected Houses as It Is Practised in England Soberly Debated: By Way of Address from the Poor Souls That Are Visited, to Their Brethren That Are Free: With Observations on the Wayes Whereby the Present Infection Hath Spread: As Also a Certain Method of Diet, Attendance, Lodging and Physick, Experimented in the Recovery of Many Sick Persons. London: 1665.
  • W. J. A Collection of Seven and Fifty Approved Receipts Good Against the Plague: Taken Out of the Five Books of That Renowned Dr. Don Alexes Secrets, for the Benefit of the Poorer Sort of People of These Nations. London: 1665.

Publications — Samuel Pepys and William Boghurst: Eyewitness Accounts

  • Boghurst, William. Loimographia: An Account of the Great Plague of London in the Year 1665. London: Shaw, 1894.
  • Braybrooke, Richard Lord, ed. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Esq., F.R.S., from 1659 to 1669: With Memoir. London: F. Warne, [1887?].

Publications — The Great Plague in Fictional Literature

  • Ainsworth, William Harrison. Old Saint Paul’s: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire. London: Parry, Blenkarn and Co., 1847.
  • Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, as Well Publick as Private, Which Happened in London During the Last Great Visitation in 1665: Written by a Citizen Who Continued All the While in London: Never Made Publick Before. London; New York: George Routledge & Sons, 1886.

See Also (Related Contagion Exhibit Pages)


The following sources were used in writing this page.

  • Hays, J. N. Epidemics and Pandemics: Their Impacts on Human History. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2005.
  • Inwood, Stephen. A History of London. London: Macmillan, 1998.
  • Moote, A. Lloyd and Dorothy C. Moote. The Great Plague: The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
  • Nicholson, Watson. The Historical Sources of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Illustrated by Extracts from the Original Documents in the Burney Collection and Manuscript Room in the British Museum. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1966.
  • Slack, Paul. The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

history, essence, symptoms, how many people died

Plague is an acute infectious disease that arose thousands of years ago, when from 95 to 100 percent of those infected died from terrible abscesses and damage to internal organs until the 20th century, it also manifests itself in the 21st century

Igor Emelyanov

KP journalist

Igor Gundarov

Doctor of Medical Sciences
, Professor

Plague has been considered the worst disease in human history for three millennia. In the East and West, from tens of thousands to tens of millions of people died from it in a few months or a year, and there were no means of salvation, except for isolation.

What kind of disease is this

It was only in 1894 that the Japanese Shibasaburo and the Frenchman Yersen discovered the plague bacillus, the causative agent of this terrible disease. Carriers of the infection are 55 species of fleas. They bite rodent pathogens, from marmots and ground squirrels to gerbils and rats. Also cats and camels. The incubation period is 2-6-12 days. There are two types — bubonic (mortality reached 95%) and pneumonic plague (98-100%). The oldest remains with traces of this disease are 3800 years old.

Plague symptoms

A white coating appears on the tongue. There is increased sweating. The person experiences intense thirst, pain in the abdomen. There is bloody sputum, lymph nodes and lungs are affected. Abscesses (buboes) grow rapidly. Previously, they often occurred on the neck and armpits. Now more often in the groin. With severe intoxication, insomnia and delirium attack.

Why the epidemic started

The first mention of the plague is in the Bible. In the five cities of the Philistines in the Middle East, people were struck by terrible growths — after the capture of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from the Israelites. In the Book of Kings, the plague was called God’s punishment. Until the 19th century, they tried to fight the plague, which affected densely crowded places with high unsanitary conditions (lack of clean water) and eating rodents (or other contacts with them), by cutting or cauterizing buboes. And — the main thing — the deaf isolation of infected cities and towns. In the 20th century, the Russian epidemiologist Vladimir Khavkin created the plague vaccine. Our bacteriologist Magdalina Pokrovskaya was the first on the planet to experience it. And at 19On the 47th, Soviet doctors using streptomycin for the first time in the world cured a «hopeless» patient with pneumonic plague.

Inoculation of an isolated patient in China. Photo:

How many died in Russia? In the middle of the 18th century, the plague claimed about 700 thousand people in two years. During the summer of 1771, almost 9 people died in Moscow.0 thousand people.

How many died in the world

For several millennia, millions in the East and West died from plague epidemics. At the end of the VI century AD, which began in Egypt and spread throughout the Mediterranean «Justinian plague» in 30 years claimed about 100 million people. In the first half of the 13th century, tens of millions died due to plague epidemics in China and Central Asia. From 1348 to 1352, Europe lost a third of its population from this disease — 25 million people. In 1664-1665, the Great London Epidemic buried a quarter of the inhabitants of the British capital — according to various estimates, from 50 to 70 thousand people. At the end of the XVIII century in Marseille and Provence, the plague killed 100,000 French people. At the end of the 19th century, 6 million died in India. And then, over the course of 65 years, another 12.5 million Indians were carried away by the Black Death. In the 21st century, several outbreaks of plague have been recorded in Mongolia and on the island of Madagascar. In the latter, from 2013 to 2017, out of 2.5 thousand cases, 244 people died…

It’s interesting

Spanish flu 1918

«Spanish flu» in 1918-1920 in the world had 550 million people — almost 30% of the world’s population. Estimates of the number of deaths from the Spanish flu differ — from 25 to 100 million, but in any case this epidemic was the largest in the history of mankind


What is the death rate from plague now ?


From 5% to 10%.


When was the last time the disease was detected in Russia?


In July 2016, in the Republic of Altai, a 10-year-old boy fell ill with bubonic plague while camping in the mountains.


Which famous person died from the plague ?


Emperor Justinian I, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Athenian commander Pericles, Carthaginian commander Hannibal, King Duarte I of Portugal, icon painter Andrey Rublev, painter Titian, playwright John Fletcher.


Which of the greats wrote about the epidemic?


Albert Camus «The Plague», Daniel Defoe «Diary of a Plague City», John Wilson «City of the Plague», Gabriel Garcia Marquez «Love in the Time of Plague».

Can the illness recur?

— Theoretically it can. This requires the following conditions: a mutating super-aggressive form and a sharp drop in immunity in the majority of the population in large cities (as in St. Petersburg in the early 90s), with a sudden increase in the level of unsanitary conditions, — such is the opinion of Doctor of Medical Sciences, Chief Researcher of the Research Institute public health and health management of the Moscow Medical Academy. Sechenov , Professor Igor Gundarov. — Another boy in the mountain pastures of Altai or Kyrgyzstan will once again make a gopher shish kebab. Then he will return home. Easily and quickly infect all relatives and friends. And some of them will leave, for example, for the European part of Russia — these are the conditions for a repetition of the epidemic. But it is with a sharply reduced immunity in the masses of the population.

Plague doctor. Photo:

How can you get plague?

— Plague does not appear out of nowhere. It cannot be said that the plague has disappeared or been defeated, like, for example, smallpox or anthrax, which today is only found in test tubes in «closed» laboratories. – Explains professor Gundarov . — Endemic foci remain in a number of tropical countries in Africa, which provide conditions for the «dormant plague», in several Asian countries, in particular in Mongolia. With tightly closed borders, the chain of transmission of the virus is interrupted. With wide open — the chance of a pandemic increases many times.

Flea bites are dangerous in these areas. Poorly processed rodent food is dangerous. Contacts with shepherds of mountain regions are dangerous.

Will the world face a new plague pandemic?

No, if people in developed countries do not have a large-scale immunity decrease for one reason or another, and they do not start massively eating rodents like marmots, massively visit and engage in a raw food diet in certain, epidemically dangerous areas of the African countries of the Congo and Madagascar, a number of countries of Central Asia, such as Kyrgyzstan, certain regions of Mongolia, which border on Russia.


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Black death — facts about the plague that you did not know / Interesting / Articles / More / About everything

On January 10, 1897, the plague vaccine was administered to humans for the first time. The creator of this vaccine, microbiologist Vladimir Khavkin, injected himself. Louis Pasteur’s prediction began to come true: «One of my students will stop the plague.»

Pasteur said this when, already dying, he came to his institute for the last time. He was then shown under a microscope the causative agent of the plague — a bacterium that had just been discovered by his student Alexandre Yersin.

Vladimir Khavkin and a new plague pandemic

The third plague pandemic began: a terrible disease broke out of a natural focus in the center of Asia and attacked China, Russia and India. Pasteur’s youngest student, Russian citizen Vladimir Aaronovich Khavkin, had just returned from India. However, he was no longer a Russian even on paper. Khavkin did not visit the Russian embassy in time to renew his foreign passport. Yes, he was not particularly expected at home.

There he was listed as a Narodnaya Volya, politically unreliable. He was under arrest three times, was under police supervision for 8 years. Without much regret, the Russian ambassador gave him a letter of recommendation for the British government, which invited Khavkin to India to test his cholera vaccine. Also the first in the world.

Cholera vaccine

Khavkin’s patron Ilya Mechnikov and Louis Pasteur himself doubted this vaccine. However, the result was excellent — 93% guaranteed protection. Believing that Khavkin was a magician, the British called him again — now to fight the plague. He was hired as a full-time biologist for the civil service, promised British citizenship and a laboratory.

In fact, the laboratory at the Bombay Medical College was allocated with unprecedented generosity — an entire room. The staff includes one laboratory assistant and three couriers. Experimental animals — rats, which sailors caught for pennies on ships coming from Europe. Simultaneously with Khavkin, several scientific centers were developing an anti-plague vaccine in much more luxurious conditions. And yet, a passportless immigrant beat everyone.

Great figure

Vladimir Aaronovich Khavkin (1860-1930) at the height of his career, in 1896. He just defeated cholera in India by personally inoculating 42,000 people. Queen Victoria has already included him in the award list dedicated to her next birthday: Khavkin will be granted British citizenship and the title of Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire.

How he was able to create a vaccine

He chose a path that others did not take: to make a poison produced by plague microbes as a vaccine. This was faster than passing bacilli generation after generation through the bodies of thirty rabbits. And there were no rabbits. The bacilli bred in the meat broth. In order for them to have something to cling to on the surface, Khavkin dropped a drop of fat into the broth. The microbes clung to the greasy stain and grew down like a stalactite. Such «Havkin’s stalactites» testified that the bacteria feel great. From time to time, the flasks with them were shaken, the bacilli sank, fat again dripped onto the surface, new microbes clung to it, and so on until the broth was saturated with toxin.

Before this poison was injected into the rats to make them immune to the plague, the flasks were heated to 60 degrees — this pasteurization killed the bacteria while preserving their toxin.

A trial batch was prepared in just three months. The laboratory assistant fell ill with a nervous breakdown, and Khavkin worked 14 hours a day: he was in a hurry, hundreds of people died around him every day. In parallel, he also lectured local medical students about the future vaccine. Besides them, no one would have dared to take root even after the Russian microbiologist on January 10, 9On the 7th year, he injected a quadruple dose of plague poison under his skin — 10 milliliters of a solution.

By the way, it was easier for Indian students to decide to get vaccinated because Khavkin came from Russia. The measures that the British colonialists fought against the plague aroused hatred among the natives. The head of the Bombay garrison, General Gatacre, acted illiterately, and no one was instructed to do so. The military took the plague victims to hospitals, and their families to concentration camps, so that reliable contact was obtained between the healthy and the already sick, who were undergoing an incubation period. The empty dwellings of the unfortunate captives were flooded with carbolic acid, so that rats with plague fleas scattered from there anywhere, spreading the infection.

Even the poorest district was saved

The Mandvi district, populated by the poorest, suffered the most. But they did not want to be vaccinated. In vain did the Indian students tell them that the vaccine was made here, and its creator was not «Inglisi», but «Rusi». And this «Rusi» is just as persecuted, because he is a Jew, and openly says that the British treat the Indians just as badly as the tsarist authorities treat his people. To the poor in the slums of Mandvi, all whites were the same.

Only an influential person whom they absolutely trusted could induce them to vaccinate. And such a leader was found. He himself went to Khavkin.

It was the Aga Khan III, ruler of the invisible Ismaili empire, the 48th imam of the great sect, guiding this Muslim community in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah Mahdi. He was then barely 20, but this young man knew 5 languages ​​​​and was well-versed in the sciences, so he could evaluate the possibilities of the vaccine from articles in medical periodicals.

He had just married, and for his wedding his subjects scattered from Mozambique to Indonesia presented him with gold coins, the total weight of which was equal to the weight of the 48th imam himself. There was enough gold, but British methods of dealing with the plague alarmed him. If the colonialists drive into the coffin all the inhabitants of the Mandvi quarter, among whom there were a lot of Ismailis, and smash their homes to pieces, as they did in Karachi, where will the precious metal come from at the next weighing, in 5 years?

In addition, the Aga Khan had political plans. For his career, he needed a feat. And he did it. At the request of the all-powerful imam, Khavkin vaccinated him several times in front of crowds of Ismailis. Khavkin’s laboratory moved from a small room to a luxurious villa of the Aga Khan, and the staff was expanded with community funds. It worked.

Immediately 11 thousand Ismailis were vaccinated against the plague. Now both the disease and the damned fighters with it bypassed their homes.

By alexxlab

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