Black Death Bug Identified–Again

08 Feb

Ring around the rosies,
A pocket full of posies,
Achoo! Achoo!
We all fall down.

This innocent sounding nursery rhyme dates to the Black Death and underscores the effects and forms of this disease. Bubonic Plague caused swollen and necrotic lymph nodes, called buboes, and a circular pinkish rash (the ring of the rosies). Placing flowers  (posies) in your pocket was supposed to ward off the bad air, or evil spirits, or whatever your belief of choice for the cause of the disease. Of course, this didn’t work. When it progressed to Pneumonic Plague, where the victim coughed, sneezed, became short of breath, and coughed up blood, death followed very quickly (all fall down).

The Black Death was a human disaster of catastrophic proportions. Though estimates vary, when it struck Europe between 1348 and 1350, it killed 30-60% of the population and probably reduced the world population from approximately 450 million to 350 million. It disrupted travel and trade, set one village against another, and shook the foundations of medicine and religion. No one knew what caused it and prevention and treatment were mysteries. Nothing worked. No medicine or prayer or ceremony slowed its march or relieved those afflicted. If neither the medical practitioners nor the clergy of the day could help, then of what use were they?

All the populace could do was to burn or bury the dead, often in mass graves. Mourning, prayer, and fear then followed.


The cause of The Plague is the tiny bacterium we call Yersinia Pestis. That was the long held dogma anyway. More recently some have questioned this and have proposed other causes such as the Ebola virus, small pox, typhus, and several other organisms.

But recent studies seem to support dogma. Hendrik Poinar and colleagues at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, recently found a very interesting way to exam the DNA from bones and teeth removed from a plague mass burial pit near London. Their “molecular probe” revealed that the causative agent was our old friend Yersinia Pestis after all.


7 responses to “Black Death Bug Identified–Again

  1. Pat S.

    February 8, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    Given today’s medicines, what’s the appropriate treatment? And back then, could ANYTHING be used to treat it?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      February 9, 2012 at 7:48 am

      Several antibiotics will kill off the bug so plague is easily treated today but back then they had no antibiotics, didn’t understand what they were dealing with, and usually turned to religion and rituals, which didn’t work. So the death rate soared as the disease spread directly from person to person in the pneumonic form and via rat fleas for the bubonic form. In some areas they even blamed cats so killed them–the irony being that cats were the only effective means of rat control.


  2. Laura Mitchell

    February 9, 2012 at 7:38 am

    1) Is the picture from the excavation that was done near Spitalfields in London?
    2) While we know that bubonic plague made it to Europe in the 14th century, are there any indications that epidemics occurred prior to the 14th century, at least in the Middle East? I’m specifically thinking about what was referred to as “The Plague of Justinian,” which (I think) occurred several hundred years before. Although I think the Plague of Justinian sounded more like influenza, but who knows?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      February 9, 2012 at 7:51 am

      Yes there were many other plague epidemics that occurred before and after the Black Death–which was the most devastating one. Yes there is controversy over what caused the Justinian Plague–and what caused the Black Death. That’s why this research is important since it points toward Yersenia as the cause–yet some still contend that it was something else.


  3. Mary V. Welk

    February 9, 2012 at 9:08 am

    The spread of the Black Death, or bubonic/pneumonic plague, was aided by the witchcraft scares and trials that were occurring in Europe at the time. Cats, especially black cats, were associated with witches and witchcraft, so they were actually hunted down and killed by the thousands. Reducing the cat population, especially in seaports where incoming ships were infested by rats, meant that more rats survived to spread the disease. Ignorance has always killed people, but especially so during the plague eras.


  4. eleanorsullivan

    February 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    I’m not surprised people believed in witchcraft, evil spirits, and magical cures since they had no other way to ward off illness. Interesting what Mary Welk said about killing the cats that could have killed disease-laden rats. Inadvertantly, they perpetuated the disease. I wonder how many diseases and conditions we’re mistreating today. Umm…



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