Notes: Episode 19, Smallpox (Part 1)

As with every show, I’ll list any corrections or clarifications here. If there’s anything I’ve overlooked, please contact me by email or in the comments and I’ll edit the notes to reflect the new information.


12:46 – Specifically, humorism was said to have been codified by Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician credited as the father of Western medicine. He was certainly alive at about the right time that it could have been him, though there are often cases of ideas and papers claiming more famous figures as their authors to lend them credit. Even the Hippocratic Oath, the famous directive on ethics for doctors (first do no harm etc.) is now thought to have been written after his death. Given that the humoric system seems to be far older than the Greeks, I would be hesitant to call this one definitive.


18:00 – One thing I forgot to mention in terms of disease as curse is that one very common interpretation of disease, especially when the source was non-obvious, was that you were being punished by God for sinful behavior. If it was decided that the disease was a punishment, treatment was sometimes withheld, with the outcome being God’s judgement on your sin – either death if it was unforgivable, or life and recovery if you had been sufficiently punished and were expected to go forward mending your ways. For the doctor to interfere with this process would have been sinful within this paradigm.


21:30 – The plague doctor outfit, designed to protect those who treated the Black Plague in Europe, looked like this, although the pointed fingers are a bit of an embellishment. Ironically the outfit probably protected the wearers by protecting them from exposure to infected fleas or physical contact with infectious materials from their patients. The fact that they had been designed to protect from miasma was a complete coincidence.


26:54 – Here’s one of many articles that links the Black Plague to gerbils, rather than rats. There’s also a link to the original article, which is incredibly boring, but at least it’s there. I honestly don’t know what to think of this; it’s a long way outside my field, but to its credit, it’s pretty funny.


35:45 – I found better pictures, or maybe looked closer at the same pictures – you can see bumps visually. Mummies tend to have weird markings on them anyway, but when you know to look for them, they’re obviously there.


40:57 – “The Antonine plague was uh… yeah.” – me, trying to describe the naming of the plague. What I really should have said was “The Antonine plague was named after Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who was co-Emperor of Rome that year.” But that would have involved remembering the name, and that was absolutely not happening during recording.


44:33 – Rhazes’ true name was Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzī, with the Latinized version coming from the final name. I was virtually unaware of the existence of Rhazes until fairly recently, and am a bit disappointed that I hadn’t come across him sooner; he belongs on the level of Hippocrates, Pliny, and Galen when considering important and influential classical doctors. He wrote dozens of books and made a number of important medical discoveries, and really deserves more credit than I feel he’s been given.


53:56 – “Immunotype” is a word I completely made up. What I was thinking about was HLA profiles, which dictate the way in which a person’s immune system identifies infectious diseases. The concept as described still stands, however.


54:21 – Again, this is HLA profiles we’re talking about here. I was low on the Europeans (it should be 35) and high on the Native Americans (more like 17 than 7). However, more notable is that the frequency of the most common profile in Europe was under 10%, while nearly 1/3 of the Native American population shared the most common profile, making spread of disease extremely easy.


59:46 – The full title is “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann. I don’t often bump specific works on this show, and as I said, Mann isn’t without his opponents, but even if Mann ends up wrong on some of the specifics I think it’s incredibly important that we start talking about European contact with the Americas. We tend to at least culturally receive a version of the truth that handily negates a lot of the most important and uncomfortable aspects of what that contact truly meant for the numerous and diverse cultures that inhabited the Western hemisphere before Europeans had an irreversible effect on them, both intentionally and unintentionally. At least in my experience the problem hasn’t been that people are in denial about the ramifications, but rather simply unaware of the scope. Any attempts at dialogue at this point – especially when they end up being as popular as 1491 has become – is vital.


1:00:33 – The expert’s name was Francis Black, and re-reading the passage, the only other suggestion he could come up with was conducting all trade in some completely sterile way, which for the 15th and 16th centuries is as impossible as any of the other options we’re talking about. The book quotes Black as saying “nothing in medicine is inevitable, ‘but I don’t see how it… could have been prevented for very long.’ ”


1:14:19 – Hapsburg Emperor Joseph I of Austria in 1711, King Luis of Spain in 1724, Czar Peter of Russia in 1730, Queen Ulrika of Sweden in 1741, King Louis XV of France in 1774. Note that these were reigning monarchs; many more royals that were part of the line of succession were killed by the disease, altering succession plans and occasionally internal political climates. Notably, Louis XV of France was the direct successor of Louis XIV at the age of five. Louis XV was his great-grandson; all other candidates for succession had been killed, most by the disease.

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