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When London Faced a Pandemic—And a Devastating Fire

March 25, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

The Great Plague and the Great Fire of London were two unimaginable disasters with no silver lining.

In 1665 and 1666, one city experienced two enormous tragedies: the Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of London. The plague killed roughly 15 to 20 percent of the city’s population, while the fire burned about a quarter of London’s metropolis, making around 100,000 people homeless. And though the city only officially recorded a small number of deaths from the fire, the real death toll was likely quite high.

Humans often want to find a silver lining amid disaster, and one myth that sprung up around these twin tragedies is that the Great Fire ended the Great Plague by driving out the rats who were spreading the disease.

READ MORE: Pandemics That Changed History

“I was raised with that myth,” says Adrian Tinniswood, a senior research fellow in history at the University of Buckingham, England, and author of By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire. “It was the kind of standard school talk back in the ‘60s when I was growing up.”

The Great Plague of 1665 to 1666

A grpah showing the mortality rate during the Great Plague of London from 1665-1666. The solid line shows the total deaths and the broken line deaths attributed to plague.

The Great Plague was London’s last major outbreak of the plague, a bacterial infection caused by Yersinia pestis. The outbreak began in the late winter or early spring of 1665. By the time King Charles II fled the city in July, the plague was killing about a thousand people a week. The death rate peaked in September when 7,165 people died in one week.

Officially, the city recorded 68,596 deaths from the Great Plague, and the true death toll may have exceeded 100,000. Most of these deaths were from bubonic plague, a form of plague spread through fleas on small mammals. In London, the major carriers were rats. (In the United States, where plague has likely existed since a 1900 outbreak in San Francisco, squirrels and prairie dogs can and do transmit plague to humans.)

After peaking in September 1665, the city’s plague deaths began to taper off that winter. In February 1666, King Charles II returned to London, signaling a belief that the city had become “reasonably safe,” …read more

Source: HISTORY

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