back to article Boffins ID bug behind London's Great Plague of 1665

Scientists have revealed Yersinia pestis as the bacteria that caused London's 1665 Great Plague. The findings were made from studies of DNA from some of the 3,500 bodies in a mass grave burial pit uncovered at an excavation site at the Liverpool Street Crossrail site. Testing at labs in Germany revealed DNA of Yersinia pestis …

  1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

    The Great Plague symptoms were very well described in literature from that period. It was unmistakably bubonic plague which is caused by only one bacteria - Yersinia Pestis.

    This differs from some earlier pandemics which have little "medical description". In the early middle ages and before that people called nearly anything with 80%+ mortality plague. The only other diseases getting a honorary different mentioning were Smallpox and Cholera. So we in fact do not know if some of the earlier pandemics were real plague or let's say extremely virulent flu (middle ages version of the Spanish Lady).

    Now, why the Great Plague was so great is a different story. Plague was not uncommon in the middle ages. A small epidemic here or there happened every few years. These however, did not become Great Plagues. While looking for an explanation of why a particular plague became Great in the bacteria looks plausible, the actual cause is more likely to be environmental - spikes and falls in rodent populations. Just like the mice spike in Europe this year (I have never seen so many, neither in UK nor Eastern Europe).

    1. Pompous Git Silver badge

      Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

      The only other diseases getting a honorary different mentioning were Smallpox and Cholera. So we in fact do not know if some of the earlier pandemics were real plague or let's say extremely virulent flu (middle ages version of the Spanish Lady).

      Not quite; the Athenian epidemic of 430 BC described by Thucydides, who contracted it himself, was likely Ebola. The idea that it was Ebola rather than smallpox or typhus was first proposed in 1996 by Dr. Patrick Olson. Olson was an epidemiologist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego and revealed his idea in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

      The Thucydides syndrome: Ebola déjà vu? (or Ebola reemergent?)

      Also, The Black Death of 1348-50 has been positively identified as Yersinia Pestis, but most likely the pneumonic form rather than bubonic.

      Bones Tell Black Death Story

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

        I dont buy the 'spread by coughs and sneezes' version of the Black Death, since many people ran away from contact with others, and yet still died.

        Obviously in London, its likely that pneumonic would dominate. But in the countryside? I dont think so.

        1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

          Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

          I dont buy the 'spread by coughs and sneezes' version of the Black Death,

          Any plague strain alternates between the three forms - bubonic, pneumonic and the relatively rear intestinal.

          The virulence (and hence the ratio) differs between strains. So even if the predominant mechanism for the Black Death was pneumonic, it still spread around via flea bites and was still carried by rodents (by the way the claim in the article about "via skin" is bollocks).

          As far as the countryside, recent studies show that the long term plague infection reservoirs in nature are not rats and mice, but gerbils. Gerbils can carry the disease for significantly longer before dying. So Y. Pestis was quite at home in the predominantly agricultural grain growing English countryside of the fourteenth century.

          It spikes and goes pandemic in cities exactly because it kills rats with 99% mortality. So the flees escaping the dead rat seek something else to bite and transmit the disease to humans. A modern city is not any different from medieval to that respect. We still have 10+ rats per human living in the sewers, so an outbreak will create a similar outpouring of infected flees.

          1. 's water music Silver badge
            Joke

            Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

            ...and the relatively rear intestinal.

            When auto-correct is so wrong it's write?

          2. ZanzibarRastapopulous

            Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

            > Gerbils can carry the disease for significantly longer before dying. So Y. Pestis was quite at home in the predominantly agricultural grain growing English countryside of the fourteenth century.

            Were Gerbils common in the predominantly agricultural grain growing English countryside of the fourteenth century?

            1. Pompous Git Silver badge

              Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

              Were Gerbils common in the predominantly agricultural grain growing English countryside of the fourteenth century?

              Given that the British pet industry introduced them* for the first time in the early 1960s, I'd say not.

              * Meriones unguiculatus is a Mongolian native.

            2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

              Re: Gerbils

              I'm fairly sure he meant Cricetus cricetus, also known as the European Hamster.

              1. x 7

                Re: Gerbils

                No European Hamsters wild in the UK - if they were they'd be very obvious, closer to the size of a guinea pig.

                Its correct that recent DNA work has linked an Asian gerbil species to being a host of the plague - and possibly the vector which allowed plague to spread along the Silk Road and other trans-Asia trade routes. However there's no way a gerbil was the vector in Europe

                1. Pompous Git Silver badge

                  Re: Gerbils

                  Those hamsters sure are wild!

                  Wild hamster

          3. x 7

            Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

            "the relatively rear intestinal."

            so you catch that through buggery?

          4. x 7

            Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

            "As far as the countryside, recent studies show that the long term plague infection reservoirs in nature are not rats and mice, but gerbils. Gerbils can carry the disease for significantly longer before dying. So Y. Pestis was quite at home in the predominantly agricultural grain growing English countryside of the fourteenth century."

            what species of gerbil would that be then? I'm not aware of any British resident gerbil population, unless they arrived with the illegal immigrants from across the Med...........

        2. Pompous Git Silver badge

          Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

          Obviously in London, its likely that pneumonic would dominate. But in the countryside? I dont think so.

          What makes you think that people didn't sleep many to a room in the countryside, but did in London? A major killer, year in, year out in medieval times was malaria (called ague at the time). As the number of people sleeping in the same room declined, so did the incidence of the disease.

          1. ZanzibarRastapopulous

            Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

            > ...was malaria (called ague at the time).

            An "ague" is a shivering fever, yes, malaria is one but there are many others, including flu.

            1. x 7

              Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

              "Ague" was widely used to describe malaria-like syndromes found in the Somerset Levels, Romney Marsh, Essex Wetlands, the Broads, and the southern Fens. Last official records I believe date from around the 1920/30's but personal knowledge would suggest it existed in Somerset until the 1960's at least

        3. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

          "I dont buy the 'spread by coughs and sneezes' version of the Black Death, since many people ran away from contact with others, and yet still died."

          The London outbreak wasn't pneumonic - and it was most likely spread by rat fleas. Black rats go everywhere given half a chance as in the non-human environment they tend to be tree-dwellers.

      2. Voland's right hand Silver badge

        Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

        Not quite; the Athenian epidemic of 430 BC described by Thucydides, who contracted it himself, was likely Ebola.

        Which is my exact point - all historical books call it plague. The only 3 pandemic diseases which get a honourable mentioning in historic literature are Plague, SmallPox and Cholera. Anything that does not look like classic SmallPox or Cholera (f.e. even the haemorrhagic aka "purple" form of Smallpox) is called Plague. So if once upon a time there was an Ebola epidemic in Europe (as suggested here) it would have gone down as plague in the history books. Similarly, most medieval pandemics of dysentery, etc have been written down as Cholera.

        1. Pompous Git Silver badge

          Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

          Which is my exact point - all historical books call it plague.

          Of course the kind of disease differentiation that became normal post Enlightenment wasn't the norm prior to it. Thucydides gave us a very detailed explanation of the symptoms without of course having the vaguest idea that we would call his plague Ebola in the 21st C.

          Have you read Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice and History? That was the book that really got me interested in disease in history. One of the most delightful books I have ever read.

          1. ZanzibarRastapopulous

            Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

            > ...without of course having the vaguest idea that we would call his plague Ebola in the 21st C.

            Without being an expert in the field it was my understanding that Ebola was one of a number of viral haemorrhagic fevers?

            1. Pompous Git Silver badge

              Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

              Without being an expert in the field it was my understanding that Ebola was one of a number of viral haemorrhagic fevers?

              Indeed it is, but they weren't what Olson proposed in his 1996 paper to which I referred. It was the first of many papers proposing that the Athens plague was most likely Ebola.

              Ebola in Antiquity?

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

            Yes, Zinssler is delightful. Y. pestis is still about. The US Southwest is one hot-spot reservoir with ground squirrels the main vector. (In some airports, visitors are given pamphlets on plague.)

      3. Voland's right hand Silver badge

        Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

        Not quite; the Athenian epidemic of 430 BC described by Thucydides, who contracted it himself, was likely Ebola.

        Read the article - while the description fits Ebola, the haemorrhagic form of SmallPox as seen in several ancient pandemics is also a possibility.

        1. Pompous Git Silver badge

          Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

          Read the article

          I did! The green monkeys are the giveaway. And note that I didn't deprecate the possibility that smallpox was a cause, just that you omitted an important possibility: Ebola.

      4. Scroticus Canis

        Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

        I would expect the Athenian epidemic would more likely be Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever than Ebola given Athens closer proximity to Crimea than west Africa; it's endemic in the Balkans. Symptoms are similar for either disease but CCH has a lower mortality rate.

        1. Pompous Git Silver badge

          Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

          I would expect the Athenian epidemic would more likely be Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever than Ebola given Athens closer proximity to Crimea than west Africa

          Were there West African green monkeys in the Crimea though? Thucydides is silent on this. Virulence of many diseases varies over time.

    2. VinceH

      Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

      "The Great Plague symptoms were very well described in literature from that period. It was unmistakably bubonic plague which is caused by only one bacteria - Yersinia Pestis."

      I think the point is that a sample has now been positively found and identified as such in victims - backing up the conclusions that can be drawn from historical and literary descriptions. The El Reg piece does make it sound like it being Y. Pestis is itself news, though, granted.

    3. Tom Paine Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

      Mice population spiked? Interesting - my better half and I were only remarking a couple of nights ago about how many tawny owls you hear these days* (in a moderately suburban/semi-rural area just inside the M25) compared to when we were kids -- neither of us remember hearing them before. A booming small mammal population would account for it. Now, if only we could encourage them to eat rats as well...

      * they're the ones that make the classic "whoo-hooo-hoo-hoo-hoo" call around dusk

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
        Devil

        Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

        Now, if only we could encourage them to eat rats as well...

        I think you've made a type here. I'm presuming you meant cats?

        [fireproof trousers on - ready for downvotes]

        1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

          Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

          >[fireproof trousers on - ready for downvotes]

          Shan't. I will, however, drop your name and address details to the local CLF[1]..

          [1] Cats Liberation Front - seeking to free cats from intolerable human interferance in their daily sleep cycle..

        2. x 7

          Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

          Cats? Tawny owls are too small.....what you need is a good population of Eagle owls to keep cats under control (along with Yorkshire terriers and small children)

          1. Eltonga
            Joke

            Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

            what you need is a good population of Eagle owls to keep cats under control (along with Yorkshire terriers and small children)

            I'd rule out small children due to unneeded extreme cruelty... toward the target cats.

    4. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

      "So we in fact do not know if some of the earlier pandemics were real plague or let's say extremely virulent flu"

      It's pretty clear from the contemporary literature that at least some of the plague outbreaks were pneumonic and described symptoms match haemorragic fevers.

      Think "Ebola" with a 14-21 day incubation time instead of the 7-day one we see at the moment.

      (FWIW, the same observation applies to ancient designations of "leprosy" - just about any disfiguring condition would qualify)

      1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

        Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

        Think "Ebola" with a 14-21 day incubation time instead of the 7-day one we see at the moment.

        That matches Hemorrhagic aka Purple smallpox aka BlackPox.

        Rear, but 90%+ fatal.

        Last pandemic with high incidence of hemorrhagic cases was in the early 18th century - 1730 or thereabouts. Even that one was not 100% hemorrhagic form though. Higher than usual, but still mostly normal pox cases. However, nothing of what we know about smallpox does not exclude the possibility of a strain being 100% BlackPox. By the way, as far as biological weapons go, that will be the mother of all bioweapons.

        1. x 7

          Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

          "That matches Hemorrhagic aka Purple smallpox aka BlackPox.

          Rear, but 90%+ fatal."

          another disease passed by buggery?

    5. NonSSL-Login

      Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

      "Just like the mice spike in Europe this year (I have never seen so many, neither in UK nor Eastern Europe)."

      We noticed a huge increase in rats in different areas of England about a year after most of the councils changed their rubbish collection from once every week to once every two weeks.

      I feel there are more fox's around since as well but I can't substantiate it.

    6. Wensleydale Cheese

      Re: I thought this one was fairly clear to be "proper" plague

      " Just like the mice spike in Europe this year (I have never seen so many, neither in UK nor Eastern Europe)."

      Here in Central Europe I noticed a distinct increase in mice last summer.

      And incidentally, disturbed an owl in the middle of the barn at about 8am just last week. I've never seen that before.

  2. JakeMS
    Joke

    Bugfix?

    Any ideas on when they plan to release the bugfix to prevent this happening again?

    1. Pompous Git Silver badge

      Re: Bugfix?

      Any ideas on when they plan to release the bugfix to prevent this happening again?

      They already did -- years before the world was afflicted by The Git. It's called DDT and this was the "magic bullet" that was going to solve all our insect problems.

  3. Tom Paine Silver badge

    (1) Full marks for running the entire press release, which has loads more gory details than the news reports. Armchair archaeology nerds say (Y) !

    (2) I'm writing this within a couple of hundred meters of the site. As a friend remarked, everyone should work near a plague pit... it concentrates the mind. (Hmmm, perhaps I should get off El Reg and do some damn work...)

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "..relatively rear intestinal."

    I do understand that's a typo, but when coupled with the next sentence, "The virulence (and hence the ratio) differs between strains." Has really tickled my scatological sense of humour.

  5. Scroticus Canis
    Facepalm

    So The Great Plague was caused by - YES - the plague! Next ....

    ... scientists to investigate if water is wet.

    1. oldcoder

      Re: So The Great Plague was caused by - YES - the plague! Next ....

      Why not?

      Water isn't always wet (which is why you use soap). Nor are all surfaces subject to being "wet" by water (even with added soap).

  6. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    More at the Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte's site here; apparently archaeogenetics is one of their specialities.

  7. TeeCee Gold badge
    Coat

    Further tests will reveal if the individuals were natives or visitors.

    Bloody immigrants! Coming over here and spreading their plagues...

  8. bep

    No face masks?

    They must be pretty confident the bacteria can't live for a long time in wet, dark, muddy surroundings! Better them than me.

    1. Pompous Git Silver badge

      Re: No face masks?

      They must be pretty confident the bacteria can't live for a long time in wet, dark, muddy surroundings!

      Long-term persistence of Y Pestis in soil is a subject of ongoing research. It's at least 40 weeks.

      1. Eltonga

        Re: No face masks?

        Even if it were 40 years, we are talking of one magnitude order above that.

        Not to say that they must totally ignore security measures but in this specific case, that they had to dig the bacteria ADN (which is not the same as saying the whole bacteria) within the victims' teeth, and being the fact that Y.pestis vector are the rat's fleas, the ones digging probability of catching anything besides retching due to the grisly show are extremely close to zero.

  9. herman Silver badge

    Amazing! The great plague was actually, you know, plague! Wow! Seriously! So cool!

    Say, what?

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