Infectious Diseases


Hospital in Vienna during the Plague of 1679 (Contemporary engraving)

The Great Plague of London (1665-6)

The Great Plague (AD 1665-1666) was a massive outbreak of disease in Britain that killed 75,000 to 100,000 people, up to a fifth of London's population. The disease is generally believed to have been Bubonic plague.

The 1665-66 epidemic was on a far smaller scale than the earlier Black Death (see above), but was remembered afterwards as the "great" plague because it was one of the last widespread outbreaks in Europe.

This episode of plague in Britain is thought to have arrived with Dutch trading ships carrying bales of cotton from Amsterdam. The disease had occurred intermittently in the Netherlands since 1654. The dock areas outside of London, where poor workers crowded into ill-kempt districts, such as the parish of St. Giles-in-the Fields, were first struck by the plague. During the winter of 1664-65, there were reports of several deaths. However, the winter was very cold, seemingly controlling the contagion. But spring and summer months were unusually warm and sunny, and the plague spread rapidly. Records were not kept on the deaths of the very poor, so the first recorded case was Margaret Porteous, on April 12, 1665.

By July 1665, plague was in the city of London itself. King Charles II of England, his family and his court left the city for Oxford. However, the Lord Mayor of the city and the aldermen stayed at their posts. Businesses were closed when most wealthy merchants and professionals fled. Only a small number of clergymen, physicians and apothecaries chose to remain, as the plague raged throughout the summer.

Several public health efforts were attempted. Physicians were hired by city officials, and burial details were carefully organized. Authorities ordered fires to be kept burning night and day, in hopes that the air would be cleansed. Substances giving off strong odors, such as pepper, hops or frankincense, were also burned to ward off the infection. London residents, including young children, were strongly urged to smoke tobacco.

Though concentrated in London, the outbreak affected other areas of the country. Perhaps the most famous example was the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. The plague arrived in a parcel of cloth sent from London. The villagers imposed a quarantine on themselves to stop the further spread of the disease. Spread of the plague was slowed in surrounding areas, but the cost to the village was the death of around 50% of its inhabitants.

Records state that deaths in London crept up to 1000 persons per week, then 2000 persons per week and, by September 1665, to 7000 persons per week. By late fall, the death toll began to slow until, in February 1666, it was considered safe enough for the King and his entourage to return to the city. By this time, however, trade with the European continent had spread this outbreak of plague to France, where it died out the following winter.

Plague cases continued at a modest pace until September 1666. On September 2nd and 3rd, the Great Fire of London destroyed many of the most crowded housing and business areas of the city, causing 16 deaths. This event seems to have effectively stopped the plague outbreak, probably due to the destruction of London rats and their plague-carrying fleas. After the fire, London was rebuilt on an urban plan originally drafted by architect Christopher Wren which included widened streets, reduced congestion and basic sewage-drainage systems. Thatched roofs were also forbidden within the city.

Accounts of the plague were given by Samuel Pepys in his famous diary, and by Daniel Defoe in the fictional work A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722.


  • Bell, Walter George. "The Great Plague in London in 1665." London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1924.

Great Plague of Vienna (1679)

The Great Plague of Vienna occurred in 1679 in Vienna, Austria, the imperial residence of the Austrian Habsburg rulers. From contemporary descriptions, the disease is believed to have been Bubonic plague. The city was crippled by the epidemic, which recurred fitfully into the early 1680's, losing an estimated 76,000 residents.

Vienna, located on the Danube River, was a major trading crossroads between east and west. As a result of this traffic, the city had suffered from episodic plague outbreaks since the first wave of "Black Death" in the fourteenth century. The city was crowded and densely built. Descriptions indicate that there were no public sewers or drainage systems, with stinking mounds of domestic garbage littering the streets. In addition, warehouses for trade goods, which held items such as clothing, carpets, and grain for months at a time, were heavily infested with rats. Conditions in the city were considered so unhealthy and filthy, even for the time, that the plague often carried the title "Viennese death" in other parts of Europe.

A religious order operating in Vienna, the Brotherhood of the Holy Trinity, created special hospitals for both children and adults during the 1679 epidemic. The basic nursing care offered in the hospitals was simple, but was generally a vast improvement over other medical and public health measures in the city. Doctors treated patients by using emetics, bloodletting, and by applying noxious ointments. The corpses of plague victims were carted to the outer edges of the city and placed in large open pits for burning. However, the pits were exposed to the open air for several days until they were nearly full, allowing ongoing infection of the rat population.

To commemorate the city's deliverance from the Great Plague and later waves of the disease, the Viennese erected monuments such as the famous Baroque Karlskirche with the associated 69 foot columns known as the Pestsäule.



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Created: Monday, September 26, 2005: Last Updated: Sunday, December 16, 2012
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