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Pestilence and Patient Zero

Pestilence: a topic we can all relate to.

In the mid fourteenth century, a tiny organism (bacteria) hitchhiked on another tiny organism (flea) which hitchhiked on another smallish organism (rat).

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This little road trip was a costly one, as it happened everywhere in Europe and killed anywhere between 75 to 200 million people.

Of course, I am writing about the Bubonic Plague. The Bubonic Plague is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, and got its name from “Bubo”, which refers a lump that arises from lymph nodes in an infected individual. Not unlike today, people were checking their bodies for lumps because they were worried about what it meant for their health.

Other interesting facts:

• The Plague also presents in other ways – pneumonic (lungs) and septicaemiac (blood infection). Bumps and lumps are simply the most common way it turns up.

• If a group of 100 infected people were left untreated, the disease would kill between 30-100 of them.

• It was also known as the “Black Death” (mors atra in Latin) to refer to the darkness of how lethal it was, and the term was used to describe such diseases in Homer’s Odyssey.

• This disease still crops up in several thousand people each year across the world. In 2020, one such case was confirmed in California, a first since 2015.

I was interested in this again because it was reported in the news only recently that researchers have found the earliest tombstones in present day Kyrgyzstan, pointing to where the Bubonic Plague first started. This was determined by an uptick in the number of deaths after 1338 and the word “Pestilence” was etched in some of the gravestones. They also excavated skeletons and checked their teeth, and confirmed presence of Yersinia pestis (Link is to the article in The Guardian).

It’s sort of like discovering who Patient Zero was, only seven centuries after the fact. Wild huh?

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Nowadays I get the impression that people have paid a bit of thought to how they want to be remembered after they die, and I would guess that most people would rather their epitaphs to mention good qualities rather than cause of death. Which is fair enough.

Just for interest – Do you care about what words might be used on your headstone, hypothetically?


Stenseth, N., Atshabar, B., Begon, M., Belmain, S., Bertherat, E., Carniel, E., Gage, K., Leirs, H. and Rahalison, L., 2008. Plague: Past, Present, and Future. PLoS Medicine, 5(1):3.


15 thoughts on “Pestilence and Patient Zero

  1. Here’s an article from last summer that mentions the plague death of a 10-year-old child in a neighboring county near where I live in southwest Colorado:

    It’s a real concern in my area. Prairie dogs tend to be carriers of the fleas involved, and prairie dogs are rampant here. I saw the article you linked to about the Kyrgyzstan discovery. Really intriguing stuff.

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  2. I happened to watch a programme on the love of cats in Japan and those cat figures they seem to have everywhere. It’s because originally in times past, cats were kept to help keep mice plagues and infestations in checks. Rats too, I suppose. In turn, keeping various epidemics under control.

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  3. On my tombstone … “can someone get a photo of this and post it up on my instagram and facebook” .. ACTUALLY – no tombstone. I want my ashes taken back to my home island of Tasmania and scattered in a favourite place. There may be some mountain climbing involved! Hopefully, what is left is some nice memories of me.

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  4. I had to do a lot of data entry of names for my training records. One woman went by Sinia and it wasn’t until I was entering her legal name that I realized it was Yersinia! It made me wonder if her parents were cruel or ignorant… The Japanese were smart. In Europe there was a war on cats because they were linked to familiars of witches. If only they had left the cats alone the rats and mouse populations would have been kept in check and lives saved! As for my epithet on my headstone – I would like it to say: I loved and was loved.

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  5. There is this one service that takes people’s bodies and make them fertilizer for trees. I am hoping that it will still be around when it is time for me to go because that’s the only “headstone” I want.


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