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Black Death info? - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Black Death info?
Here's where I admit that I gave my OC, Daniel Morse, a total pepperjack moment... his thing for reading about plagues? Totally my morbid hobby as a kid.

Anyway, not really being in the sciences as an adult, I haven't kept up with the whole argument about was it/wasn't it bubonic plague that seems to have cropped up, with a man claiming it was anthrax, a woman saying it was a form of hemorrhagic plague, all based on spread patterns, and then traditionalists pointing out that our friend Y. pestis can totally account for everything. I was checking the Wiki, which is in serious trouble on the subject, as the "Black Death" article basically refers to the bubonic plague theory as being "debunked," while the bubonic plague page says confidently that the Black Death was a bubonic plague outbreak. (My guess is that the Black Death page got edited severely by a Plague/Hememorrhagic Fever shipper reader who was thoroughly convinced by Susan Scott's book.) Since both sides seem to be talking like theirs is the only point of view, I haven't seen any real back and forth on the issue.

Does anyone know of a site that neutrally lists the pros and cons of the Great Plague Debate? I'd really like to read some written-for-laymen science that's not trying to prove one side or the other, just explain the two viewpoints in comparison to each other. (And possibly explain to me why there appears to be a snit-fit about it, rather than a discussion. I'm not inclined toward either side of the argument, but the anti-bubonic side has the kind of obnoxious feel of, "I'm being subversive, aren't I so cool???" to it, while the Y. pestis fandom seems quite irritated at the whole thing rather than interested by it. But I don't know why!)
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Comments
From: (Anonymous) Date: July 3rd, 2007 05:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Slightly odd that my delurking post is non-HP related...I've been a fan of your fics for quite a while.

Anyways, one of my scientist PhD friends at work told me about an article in a scientific journal where someone excavated remains of "Black Death" victims and extracted DNA from the pulp of their teeth. (In cases of people with overwhelming bacteria infections, the pulp of the teeth can act like a bacterial harbor.) They took the DNA and analyzed it, and they found that the bacteria in the teeth was Y. Pestis. I'll look up the article if you like.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 3rd, 2007 06:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
I actually found that one. The counter is that the bacterium isn't found in another grave, and the "It wasn't bubonic" group seems to think the teeth picked it up from the soil somehow.
aerrin From: aerrin Date: July 3rd, 2007 05:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
I am also delurking in a similar (but less useful) fashion - I took a course in Aberdeen once with a professor (Dr. Billy Naphy) who is (or was, in 2002) firmly of the 'not bubonic plague) camp. I seem to recall his adamant stance that bubonic plague didn't account for some of the symptoms and, more importantly, for the way the Plague spread at the rate and in the patterns it did. It's kind of a fascinating debate. If you find anything good that compares the two, could you please share? I'd love to see what's happened with it in the years since.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 3rd, 2007 06:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
The other side says that the pneumonic variation accounts for any of the discrepancies. It really is a fascinating subject.
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 3rd, 2007 06:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
1. Kind of macabre to cite Occam... I think he died of it! (Not that it has any bearing on whether or not the razor applies.) The anti faction seems to argue that it's not the simplest explanation that fits the facts, because they think it doesn't fit the facts.

2. I don't doubt that there was a lot of co-morbidity involved.

What I'm really curious about is... what are the politics of this? Why are the anti people militant? Why are the pro people totally unmoved or hostile, instead of interested? I feel like I'm missing some kind of major biology bitchfest.
(Deleted comment)
From: (Anonymous) Date: July 3rd, 2007 08:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
The unusual factor in the 1918 pandemic was that it killed mostly young adults - healthy people with good immune systems. People wound up dying because their immune system was so strong that the inflammation damaged their lungs. (Interestingly enough, similar immune system overkill happens with some types of liver damage.)

Bethany (also the delurker in comment 1 above)
mistralcat From: mistralcat Date: July 3rd, 2007 05:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
From what I understand, at least one of the sides claims that while Justinian's plague and the Hong Kong/India plague of the early 1900s were bubonic, the Black Death was mostly pneumonic plague - still caused by Y. pestis, but slightly different. The Russian/Eastern theory is that the resevoir from which the Black Death sprung was marmots on the steppes of Central Asia, which are the only animals besides humans that can have pneumonic plague. The other two pandemics sprung from rat resevoirs, is how I think the consensus goes. The dispersal patterns of the Black Death don't seem to fit bubonic plague alone (for instance, the Black Death moved far inland, instead of staying near the rat-infested ships and ports), but do fit a pneumonic plague epidemic - spread human-to-human - with bubonic plague along for the ride.

Anyway, from what I understand, there are two theories about Y. pestis. One is that the differences in the strains were historical: there was the Ancient (Justinian's) strain, the Medieval (Black Death) strain, and the Modern (Hong Kong) strain. There doesn't seem to be any real genetic evidence supporting this theory, but most of the West seems to buy into it. The other theory is from Russian and Chinese scientists, and separates Y. pestis into what animal resevoir it's endemic in. That leads to the idea of the Black Death having been caused by the much more dangerous strain that's endemic to marmots. Pneumonic plague is *close to 100% fatal* - if you don't get the right antibiotics in time, and in time means practically before you have symptoms. Bubonic plague is *only* 50-60% fatal without antibiotics.

All of this is from my own morbid hobby of reading about epidemics - I'm not an epidemiologist or a microbiologist. I don't know any good websites - but when you find them, please post! Also, there's a newish book out called, funnily enough, Plague, by Wendy Orent that goes into the Western and Eastern theories, as well as discussing how the Soviets were making plague into a biological weapon, including making it antibiotic resistent.

Whew.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 3rd, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, from what I've been able to gather, the "anti" faction includes anti any Y. pestis outbreak ("Mr. Rat Pleads Innocence!" one headline reads), while the traditionalists hold that the pneumonic variation accounts for all of the discrepancies. The book I'm currently reading, Return of the Black Death, posits that it was really a viral disease for something resembling Ebola, always borne in droplets, and that it's not gone... just dormant. The researchers have also done some work on a mutation in Europe that leaves about 10% of the population resistant to HIV, and they believe that mutation was an evolutionary response to the plague, which would therefore have to be viral. As I wasn't able to get to that article, though, I'm not at all sure how they make the journey from point A to point Z.
mistralcat From: mistralcat Date: July 3rd, 2007 06:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Interesting! I'll have to find that book.
neekiethemagid From: neekiethemagid Date: July 3rd, 2007 08:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ha ha, this seems to be /the/ post for all the delurkers who read your HP fic, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with HP. So, before I reply to the post itself...HI! I've never posted on your journal before, but I've commented on your ff.net fic, and I think your writing is marvelous.

Anyway, I just finished up a whole undergrad course on the Black Death a few weeks ago, and from what I've learned, the symptoms, the mode of transmission, and the spread of the disease during the Black Death seem to match the characteristics of the bacterium that Alexander Yersin discovered in Hong Kong in the early 1900s. For example, there are generally two possibilites if you contract the Plague--the normal bubonic fever, or bubonic pneumonia (which is much worse). Historians who wrote at the beginning of the Black Death, like Procopius, discuss these two branches of Plague as well.

If you asked me to put my money on it, I'd say it's probably the same disease. (I hope this reply wasn't too pedantic; I figure it's actually a good way to come out and say "Hi! You write real good!" while pretending to look like I know stuff.) :-D Nice to meet you!
neekiethemagid From: neekiethemagid Date: July 3rd, 2007 08:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oops, I should have read all the other posts before speaking, since some of what I've said has already been covered.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: July 3rd, 2007 08:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
When I did the Black Plague in my Medieval Europe class, we were basically told that it was commonly considered to be Y. pestis, but there was good evidence it might not be. The best book I found on the subject was by Samuel Cohn, "The black death transformed : disease and culture in early Renaissance Europe." If you're willing to wade through a lot of demographic data, it puts up a very good argument for something that was not Y. pestis, although it doesn't speculate much as to what. The main points are basically that the spread rates, mortality rates, post-plague immunity rates, and times of peak death are completely wrong for Y. pestis, which is just not very virulent at all, at least in its modern form. (3% death rates of those infected in crowded, dirty 19th c Indian cities, as opposed to 50-60% total population mortality for the Black Death. Now, loss of virulence is common in diseases, but usually not to this level, and _definitely_ not when there is an animal reservoir to reinfect; look at smallpox.) In particular, the theory that it was carried by rats doesn't stand up to the fact that cities which shut themselves up from human traffic had no or very, very few cases, which suggests a person to person mode of transmission rather than via fleas. The symptoms are sort of the same, but there are a lot that don't match it. I found it quite convincing.

It is basically a historians' argument rather than a medical one, and I think the reason that the traditionalists are so annoyed about the argument is that they feel like there's a perfectly good theory already and people are reinterpreting the data to be "cool" rather than for any good reason, while the new theorists are angry that everyone wants to stay stuck in the past, etcetera, etcetera. I've yet to see a really good analysis of both sides.
dramaturgy From: dramaturgy Date: July 3rd, 2007 09:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
No promises, but depending on how much you want/need to know this, the people at historyisfun might be able to help!

(And possibly explain to me why there appears to be a snit-fit about it, rather than a discussion. I'm not inclined toward either side of the argument, but the anti-bubonic side has the kind of obnoxious feel of, "I'm being subversive, aren't I so cool???" to it, while the Y. pestis fandom seems quite irritated at the whole thing rather than interested by it. But I don't know why!)

Oh, history as a fandom. Beware the Napoleon/Josephine shippers, they're rabid. ;)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 3rd, 2007 10:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, history as a fandom.

I think I first realized history was a fandom when I got interested in Elizabeth I, and realized that half of any biography about her was arguing about ships. Some daring soul might try a gen bio, but I'm not holding my breath. ;p Then, of course, there was the great Tom/Sally debate, which appeared to be the whole of Jefferson scholarship for quite a long time. In college, I found out about legions of David/Jonathan shippers, and of course, Shakespeare picked up on Antony/Cleopatra...

I, of course, sail on the U.S.S. RememberedLady. JohnxAbigail FTW!
dramaturgy From: dramaturgy Date: July 3rd, 2007 11:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
John/Abigail = so canon, I don't care what book you're reading!
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