Vol 61 No 2 2021 

Page 3

The Great Plague and the Great Fire of London  

 a Cooke’s tour

By  Dr. Robin A. Cooke

The Black Death

A number of waves of the Black Death raged through Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries.

• It was called the Black Death because the skin of many of the sufferers turned black.

• The clinical manifestations were dramatic - rapid onset of a high fever prostration and death within a few days.

• The mortality from pneumonic plague was 100%.

• In some towns almost the whole population perished.

• The overall mortality was about 40%.

• The last episode in the UK was the Great Plague of London (1665-1666)

A moulage (wax model) by the Italian modeller, Gaetano Zumbo. (1656–1701) showing a group of people who died from the ‘Black Death.’

There are two clinical types of plague Pneumonic and Bubonic

Pneumonic plague

Interestingly, Zumbo has shown a rat on the abdomen of one of his figures (red arrow). It was not until 1894 during the Plague epidemic in Hong Kong, that Alexandre Yersin (1863- 1943) identified the causative organism that was named after him. Shortly after this it was shown that the rat flea was the vector.

Bubonic plague

This young Vietnamese woman has a left inguinal bubo. It was aspirated and plague bacilli were identified.

Plague doctors

Plague doctors would visit the sick and dying. To protect themselves from the smell and from the ‘contagion’ they wore a long black robe and covered their face with only the eyes visible.

They had a beak-like mask with perfume in its tip. In spite of these precautions, many doctors died. (The ‘contagion’ was not the smell as was the prevailing opinion at the time, but it was carried by the rat fleas that had no problem penetrating the protective clothing of the doctors).

The long pikes on the right were used by town wardens to prevent outsiders from entering Lyon and introducing plague.

(This was the practice in many towns throughout Europe).

Conditions for patients in Mediaeval hospitals

when the Black Death was raging in Paris and Lyon, France .  These conditions are representative of what was being done everywhere else in Europe.

Hotel Dieu, Paris One of the historical drawings on a walkway in the hospital shows activities in the wards. The beds are arranged along the walls and there is a free space in the middle where all functions of the ward were conducted in a public manner.

Left panel: Women share a bed as they deliver their babies. Two sisters preparing bodies for burial.

(With a death rate of 25% this would have been a daily chore.)

Middle panel: A crucifix and an altar. Treatments being administered. The King who was a patron of the hospital paying a visit.

Right panel: In the top right hand corner there is a fleur-de-lys, the symbol of the French Monarch. Many patients in the same bed. Food being served.

This photo taken during a visit to Lyon in 2000 shows two types of bed. On the right there is a bed for a single patient. The large bed accommodated 4 patients at a time. The patients would be moved so that ones nearest to dying were placed on the outside for convenience. Under these conditions infectious diseases (such as plague) would spread easily from patient to patient.

Responses of the public to the plague.

• Burials were usually conducted in the grounds attached to churches (the church yards).

• The death rate was so high that the cemeteries were full, and there were not enough grave diggers.

• As a result, bodies were just left in the church yards.

• When the plague had passed, the bones were collected and stored in rooms (crypts) beneath the church.

The ‘Bone’ Church

In the late 19th century the Schwarzenberg family commissioned this decoration of bones to be made in the representation of their coat of arms. It is located inside a church, known as the "Bone Church"  in Sedlec, a town near Prague in the Czech Republic.


• In 2019 the workers constructing the Crossrail tunnel in London, uncovered a large number of skeletons.

• Archaeologists identified these as being of plague victims that were buried in mass graves.

The Great Fire of London (1666)

• The Great Plague was stopped by the Great Fire that began in a bakehouse in Pudding Lane owned by Mr. Thomas Farryner shortly after midnight on Sunday the 2nd of September, 1666.

• The firefighters advised that the only way to stop the fire was to destroy unaffected buildings in the direct path of the fire.

• The Lord Mayor was loathe to do this.

• Finally, King Charles 11 intervened and ordered dynamite from the Tower of London to be used to dynamite buildings in the path of the fire to create fire breaks.

• The following Sunday it rained, and the fire was finally extinguished.

• In that time it was estimated that 70,000 of the 80,000 inhabitants died.

The Monument was designed by Sir Christopher Wren to commemorate the Great Fire.

The Carvings show King Charles 11 (red arrow) ministering to victims of the fire.

Pudding Lane in relation to the Monument.

A sign on the wall of a building in Pudding Lane commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Bakers to mark the 500th anniversary of their Charter granted by King Henry V11 in 1486.