The Black Death

Last Thursday the senior children were treated to a Caldwell Lecture on the topic of the Black Death and consequent scientific breakthroughs related to combating disease.

John McLean from the Strathallan History Department introduced the topic in grand style through the image of a ‘Zombie’, asking why such an illustration may be relevant to the topic. The talk continued in such style, with John asking questions and posing conundrums. It was pleasing to see the children so ready and willing to contribute and many of their answers were most impressive.  At one stage he asked for volunteers to illustrate that the disease comprised of three different strains, the best known of which was the ‘Bubonic’, with balls of pus-filled sores inhabiting one’s armpits and groins - at which point he punctured balloons filled with water to make the point, much to the children’s amusement. Later on he asked the children to open envelopes he had earlier left on their chairs. These revealed the spread of each disease among the population and, by asking various groups to sit down at various stages, it made the point that huge numbers passed away as a consequence of this terrible plague – with those suffering from Septicaemic Plague having no chance of survival. The children were left in no doubt that this was a terrifying time for all, not least as they had no idea what caused it – God, the alignment of planets and bad air all proposed as the causes by various parties. 

Paul Vallot took up the story of man’s subsequent fight against disease with the story of Edward Jenner and small pox. A breakthrough based purely on his observation that Dairy Maids never caught small pox, and so vaccinations (from the Latin word for ‘cow’) were introduced after an experiment on an unsuspecting local boy, James Phipps...obviously pre- health and safety days and litigation!  We also learned about the work of Joseph Lister and the introduction of carbolic acid to clean surgical instruments and wounds, although the saddest story was probably the work of Ignaz Semmelweis, who suggested that doctors washed their hands before delivering children, as he postulated that disease was transmitted by their blooded hands as many had dashed from work on cadavers. Remarkably his work was ‘rubbished’ at the time and, as a result, his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Many doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands, feeling that their social status as gentlemen was inconsistent with the idea that their hands could be unclean. Shunned and ridiculed by much of the medical profession Semmelweis ended his life in a mental institution, having gone mad.

Before we knew it the talk was over and it was time for supper, but all would agree they had enjoyed a very informative and entertaining lecture.
Innes MacAskill, 06/05/2013