Disease History

The Plague has many names: the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague, the Great Pestilence. More precisely, though, the Plague is a zoonotic disease called Yersinia pestis. No matter what name the Plague is going by, there is no denying the amount of devastation brought on by this disease. Before 1700, there were three major world epidemics of Plague that infected populations like no one had ever seen before. These were the Plague of Justinian, the Second Plague, and the Black Death. While there is some confusion between the major pandemics and epidemics, because these outbreaks fit characteristics of both definitions, these three are accepted as the great wide spread epidemics before 1700.

Breakdown and Transmission

Yersinia pestis is a disease that is enzootic to burrowing rodents—most indigenously to the Asian marmots and Indian rats, which serve as the disease’s reservoir species. While the disease lies within these animals, transmission is achieved, most commonly, through flea bites. For example: A flea drinks the blood of a rat and is now carrying that bacteria. This bacteria then multiplies within the flea’s gut, which then becomes so variant that it literally clogs the flea’s gut. The flea then goes on to bite a human and, quite disgustingly, regurgitates its infected blood into the human. Apart from the gross journey of the flea, the disease can also be transmitted from human to human through respiratory means, if the Plague has become pneumonic.

The Different Forms of Plague

There are three types of plague that exists in humans. These are the Bubonic, Pneumonic, and Septicemic plagues. Bubonic, which is the most popularized form of plague, symptoms come to surface in the first week of infection. One would experience high fever, chills, and malaise. The most common visual symptom is swollen lymph nodes (which are called buboes). The mortality rate of Bubonic Plague is around 60 – 70% and if left untreated, death will occur within five to seven days. Pneumonic Plague can infect a person through means of inhaling infectious particles, where there is about a one to three day incubation period. After this brief period, there is an immediate onset of symptoms and deterioration of the person’s body. This type of the disease creates a deadly pneumonia of plague in the lungs and respiratory system making it have a 95 – 100% mortality rate if left untreated. Septicemic Plague can be a result of both untreated bubonic and pneumonic plague. This happens when plague bacteria multiplies in the bloodstream which rapidly overwhelms the body’s tissues. This causes a necrosis effect (this was known as the Black Death) and is almost always fatal.

Major Spreading

The first major spread of plague was the Plague of Justinian (this plague was named after the Roman Emperor Justinian who contracted the disease and miraculously survived). This epidemic was reported by Procopius in 540-590 CE. This disease affected almost the entire Byzantine Empire. It started in Egypt and then began to spread to Palestine, Syria, and Constantinople. From there, the disease went to Asia Minor, Persia, Mesopotamia, and even as far as Italy and Sicily. It is estimated that this pandemic killed around 100 million people, or roughly one fourth or one third of the population.

The Second Plague began around 1346 during a conflict between the Christians and Muslims in Caffa (in Ukraine). While this plague spread much like the first major epidemic, with rats and fleas being the major conductors, the battle between these two groups resulted in having infected plague victims catapulted into the city walls in an effort to spread the disease and kill the opposing side.

The last of the three major wide spread plagues is the Black Death. In the 14th century, this plague was thought to have originated in central Asia and then spread along trade routes. In Europe alone, the population was reduced from 123 million to 65 million. Until recently, it was commonly hypothesized that the spread of the Black Death was spread the old fashion way via flea bites. However, new studies show that the disease could not have spread as fast as it did by means of bug bites. Archaeologists are now saying that the Black Death spread so fast because the disease had become airborne.


Early “cures” for Plague consisted of a brew made from crushed up snakes, applications of feces (yes, people were that desperate), and using charms, spells, and carrying talismans. Many medical professionals fled their hometowns in an attempt to escape the possibility of catching the Plague. Still today, there is no “cure” for Plague. While there has not been any major outbreaks for quite a time, Plague still exists and is endemic in some areas. Plague has been the great disease that never actually went away. There has been a couple cases in the US, but nothing even worth mentioning in relation to the severity of the great pandemics.

Cited Links:

Cover Photo:http://zackeeney.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/keep-calm-and-avoid-the-plague-5.png

Zoonotic Diseases: http://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/zoonotic-diseases.html

Yersinia pestis:https://microbewiki.kenyon.edu/index.php/Yersinia_pestis

The 3 Plagues:http://www.cdc.gov/plague/history/


Pandemic: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pandemic?s=t

Reservoir Species:http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/reservoir+host

The 3 Types of Plague: http://www.healthline.com/health/plague#Types2

In Text Photo: http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-diseases/plague-article/


Byzantine Empire:http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/byzantine-empire

Airborne: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/black_death_of_1348_to_1350.htm