Infectious and Epidemic Disease in History

Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Week 6.  Contagion?

excerpts from
Samuel Pepys' Diary

relating primarily to his account of events surrounding the so-called Great Plague of London
which began in 1664 and was interrupted by the Fire
that destroyed much of the City of London in September 1666

26 December - 2 January
3.  ...with great joy, I received the good news of the decrease of the plague this week to 70, and but 253 in all; which is the least Bill hath been known these twenty years in the City--though the want of people in London, is it that must make it so low, below the ordinary number for Bills.

5.  I, with my Lord Brouncker and Mrs .Williams, by coach with four horses to London....  But, Lord, what staring to see a nobleman's coach come to town--and porters everywhere bow to us, and such begging of beggars.  And a delightful thing it is to see the town full of people again, as now it is, and shops begin to open, though in many places, seven or eight together, and more, all shut; but yet the town is full, compared with what it used to be--I mean the City end, for Covent-Gurden and Westminster are yet very empty of people, no Court nor gentry being there....

for the week of 2-9 January 10.  ...to the Change, and there hear, to our grief, how the plague is encreased this week from 70 to 89....

Librarian of the Royal College of Physicians

This refers to John Wilkins' attempt to produce a universal written language.

11.  ...Lord Brouncker ... and I to Gresham College to have seen Mr. Hooke and a new-invented chariot of Dr. Wilkins, but met with nobody at home.  So to Dr. Wilkins's, where I never was before--and very kindly received, and met with Dr. Merritt; and fine discourse among them, to my great joy--so sober and so ingenious.  He is now upon finishing his discourse of a Universall Character....

13.  ...Home with his Lordship to Mrs. Williams's, in Covent-garden to dinner (the first time I ever was there) and there met Captain Cocke; and pretty merry, though not perfectly so, because of the fear that there is of a great encrease again of the plague this week....  After dinner, Cocke and I together by coach to the Exchange, in our way talking of our matters, and do conclude that everything must break in pieces while no better counsels govern matters then there seem to do, and that it will become him and I and all men to get their reckonings even as soon as they can, and expects all to break.  Besides, if the plague continues among us another year, the Lord knows what will become of us....

January 13.  Letter from Samuel Pepys to Sir William Coventry

...I pray God the next week's bill [of mortality] set not the Court backwards in the resolution you wish for of coming this way, for we much fear an increase [in the number of deaths due to plague], which (if continued) will go far towards our ruin, and that in no consideration more than from the particular evils that attend the King and Duke [of York]'s absence from this seat of buisness....


The figures for the previous week (2-9 January) had been 265 and 89.
16.  ...mightily troubled at the news of the plague's being encreased, and was much the saddest news that the plague hath brought me from the beginning of it, because of the lateness of the year, and the fear we may with reason have, of its continuing with us the next summer--the total being now 375; and the plague 158....

January 16.  Letter from Samuel Pepys to Sir William Coventry

...We are all much saddened at the increase of the plague by 69, and the whole by 110, this week, and myself particularly by the disappointment put on my hopes of having you nearer us.  For (as little as I spare you in the number and sizes of my letters), there is a great deal behind (upon my word) for discourse, and necessary stuff too....


This was an informal gathering.  The first Council meeting after the plague was on 21 February and the first meeting of the society on 14 March.

Many physicians left London during the plague.

19.  It is a remarkable thing how infinitely naked all that end of the town, Covent-garden, is at this day of people; while the City is almost as full again of people as ever it was....

22.  ...my Lord Brouncker being going with Dr. Wilkins, Mr. Hooke, and others, to Collonell Blunts to consider again of the business of Charriots, and to try their new invention which I saw here my Lord Brouncker ride in; where the coachman sits astride upon a pole over the horse, but doth not touch the horse, which is a pretty odde thing, but it seems it is most easy for the horse, and, as they say, for the man also....  [M]et the first meeting of Gresham College since the plague.  Dr. Goddard did fill us with talk, in defence of his and his fellow-physicians' going out of town in the plague-time; saying that their perticular patients were most gone out of town, and they left at liberty--and a great deal more, &c.  But what, among other fine discourse pleased me most, was Sir G. Ent about Respiration; that it is not to this day known or concluded on among physicians, nor to be done either, how that action is managed by nature, or for what use it is....

  23.  ...Good news, beyond all expectation, of the decrease of the plague; being now but 79, and the whole but 272.  So home with comfort to bed....

25.  ...It is now certain that the King of France hath publicly declared war against us, and God knows how little fit we are for it....

St. Olave's Church, Hart Street, his parish church (Map 1, 3)

Since June 1665, 326 plague victims had been buried there and a new churchyard opened for the purpose.

30.  ...This is the first time I have been in this church since I left London for the plague; and it frighted me indeed to go through the church more than I thought it could have done, to see so [many] graves lie so high upon the churchyard, where people have been buried of the plague.  I was much troubled at it, and do not think to go through it again a good while.

31.  ...[Mr. Knightly] is mighty solicitous, as I find many about the City that live near the churchyards, to have the churchyards covered with Lime, and I think it is needful, and ours I hope will be done....  [T]o White-hall ... to my great joy people begin to bustle up and down there, the King holding his resolution to be in town to-morrow, and hath good encouragement, blessed be God, to do so, the plague being decreased this week to 56, and the total to 227....


The uplifting text for the sermon was Leviticus 26:21--"And if ye walk contrary unto me, and will not hearken unto me, I will bring seven times more plagues unto you, according to your sins."

4.  Lords day.  And my wife and I the first time together at church since the plague, and now only because of Mr. Mills his coming home to preach his first sermon, expecting a great excuse for his leaving the parish before anybody went, and now staying till all are come home; but he made but a very poor and short excuse, and a bad sermon.  It was a frost, and had snowed last night, which covered the graves in the churchyard, so as I was the less afeared for going through....
7.  ...I stayed at home all day long to set things to rights in my chamber, by taking out all my books and putting my chamber in the same condition it was before the plague.  But in the morning, doing of it and knocking up a nail, I did bruise my left thumb, so as broke a great deal of my flesh off, that it hung by a little.  It was a sight frighted my wife--but I put some balsam of Mrs. Turners to it, and though in great pain, yet went on with my business; and did it to my full content, setting everything in order, in hopes now that the worst of our fears are over as to the plague for the next year....

9.  ...Thence to Westminster ... and so to the Hall, where the first day of the Tearme [term] and the hall very full of people, and much more then was expected, considering the plague that hath been....

12.  ...Then comes Mr Caesar, my boy's lute-master, whom I have not seen since the plague before, but he hath been in Westminster all this while very well--and tells me how, in the heighth of it, how bold people there were to go in sport to one another's burials.  And in spite to well people, would breathe in the faces (out of their windows) of well people going by....

13.  ...Ill news this night, that the plague is encreased this week, and in many places else about the town, and at Chatham and elsewhere....

16.  ...With Moore to the coffee-house, the first time I have been there [since 24 May 1665 at the beginning of the plague outbreak], where very full, and company it seems hath been there all the plague time....

Francis Potter, An interpretation of the number 666 (1642) 18.  Lords Day.  ...calling by the way at my bookseller's for a book, writ about twenty years ago in prophecy of this year coming on, 1666, explaining it to be the mark of the beast.  I home and there fell to reading and then to supper and to bed.
mechanical tracing devices similar to a pantograph

an aid for drawing from life consisting of a rectangular frame crossed with a gridwork of wires

a camera obscura in which an image is projected onto a screen by means of a lens

21.  ...with my Lord Bruncker to Gresham College, the first time after the sickness that I was there, and the second time any met.  And hear a good lecture of Mr. Hookes about the trade of Felt-making, very pretty.  And anon alone with me about the art of drawing pictures by Prince Roberts rule and machine, and another of Dr Wren's; but he says nothing doth like Squares, or, which is the best in the world, like a darke roome....
From 13-20 February, plague burials increased over the previous week from 59 to 65.  Burials from other causes from 249 to 252. 22.  ...We are much troubled that the sickness in general (the town being so full of people) should be [up] by 3, and yet of the particular disease of the plague there should be 10 encrease.

23.  ...the streets full of people again....

1.  ...Captain Cockes ... maid sick of the plague a day or two ago, and sent to the pest-house, where she now is--but he will not say anything but that she is well.  But, blessed be God, a good Bill this week we have--being but 237 in all, and 42 of the plague, and of them, but 6 in the City--though my Lord Brouncker says, that these 6 are most of them in new parishes, where they were not the last week....

On 5 June 1665, the King ordered the closure of all playhouses.  They reopened in the latter part of November 1666.
9.  ...after dinner we walked to the King's play-house, all in dirt, they being altering of the Stage to make it wider--but God knows when they will begin to act again....

10.  ...I do indulge myself a little the more pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it [Pepys turned 33 on 23 February], and out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it with any pleasure.

6-13 March 13.  ...The plague encreased this week 29 from 28, though the Totall fallen from 238 to 207--which doth never a whit please me.
14.  ....[I walked] all alone in the fields behind Grays Inne, making an end of reading over my dear Faber Fortunae of my Lord Bacon's; and thence, it growing dark, took two or three wanton turns about the idle places and lanes about Drury-lane, but to no satisfaction, but great fear of the plague among them....
Plague burials for 6-13 March were 29 compared to 33 the next week.  Deaths in general increased from 207 to 233 during this period. 22.  ...The plague encreased 4 this week, which troubles me--though but one in the whole City.
Plague deaths in the week 27 March -3 April were 26 compared to 17 the previous week.  Deaths from all causes were 211 compared to 224.
5.  ...The plague this week is to our great grief increased 9 this week, though decreased a few in the total.  And this increase runs through many parishes, which makes us much fear the next year.
The week ending 3 April had seen an increase of 9 deaths; the week before there had been a decrease of 16. 8.  ...The Court full this morning of the news of Tom Cheffins's death, the King's closet-keeper.  He was well last night as ever, playing at tables in the house--and not very ill this morning, 6 a-clock; yet dead before 7--they think, of an impostume in his breast.  But it looks fearfully among people nowadays, the plague, as we hear, increasing everywhere again....


9.  ...by coach to Mrs. Pierces, and with her and Knipp and Mrs. Pierce's boy and girl abroad, thinking to have been merry at Chelsey; but being come almost to the house by coach near the waterside, a house alone, I think the Swan--a gentleman walking by called to us to tell us that the house was shut up of the sickness.  So we with great affright turned back, being holden to the gentleman, and went away (I for my part in great disorder) for Kensington....

Burials from all causes were down by 16 from the previous week (27-3 April), but plague burials up from 26 to 28.

40 plague victims were buried in London during 10-17 April; 28 during the previous week, and the fear was that warmer weather would bring still worse news.  After May, the worst was over in the capital.  In the provinces, the epidemic peaked in the summer.

10.  ...Bad news, that the plague is decreased in the general again and two encreased in the sickness.

23.  ...This morning the House of parliament have met, only to Adjourne again till winter.  The plague, I hear, encreases in the town much, and exceedingly in the country everywhere....

25.  ...The plague, blessed be God, is decreased [to] 16 this week. 

Death toll for London, 1-8 May.  It was an increase of 13 over the previous week.
12.  ...The plague encreases in many places, and is 53 this week with us.
25.  ...Mrs. Pen carried us to two gardens at Hackeny (which I every day grow more and more in love with)--Mr. Drakes one, where the garden is good, and house and the prospect admirable--the other, my Lord Brookes's, where the gardens are much better, but the house not so good, nor the prospect good at all--but the gardens are excellent; and here I first saw Oranges grow, some green, some half, some a quarter, and some full ripe on the same tree, and one fruit of the same tree doth come a year or two after the other.  I pulled off a little one by stealth (the man being mighty curious of them) and eat it; and it was just as other little green small oranges are; as big as half the end of my little finger.  Here were also great variety of other exoticque plants, and several Labarinths, and a pretty Aviary....
In the week of 26 June -3 July, plague burials were 35 compared to 33 for the previous week.  The outbreak in Colchester raged from August 1665 to December 1666, reaching its height in late June, and accounting for over 4800 deaths--higher in proportion to total population than in London.  It was probably the worst provincial plague since the Black Death and is said to have led to the economic decline of the town in the 18th century.
4.  ...Thanks be to God, the plague is as I hear encreased but two this week.  But in the country in several places it rages mightily, and perticularly in Colchester, where it hath long been, and is believed will quite depopulate the place.... 

16.  ...A wonderful dark sky and shower of rain this morning--which at Harwich proved so too, with a shower of hail as big as walnuts....

physician to the King
28.  ...at noon to dinner ... where my Lord Brouncker ... and Comissioner Pett, Dr. Charleton, and myself entertained with a venison pasty by Sir W Warren.  Here, very pretty discourse of Dr. Charleton concerning Nature's fashioning every creature's teeth according to the food she intends them.  And that man's, it is plain, was not for flesh, but for fruit.  And that he can at any time tell the food of a beast unknown, by the teeth.  My Lord Brouncker made one or two objections to it; that creatures find their food proper for their teeth, rather then that the teeth was fitted for the food.  But the Doctor, I think, did well observe that creatures do naturally, and from the first, before they have had experience to try, do love such a food rather then another.  And that all children love fruit, and none brought to flesh but against their wills at first....  Thence with my Lord ... to Highgate--all the way, going and coming, I learning of him the principles of Optickes, and what it is that makes an object seem less or bigger.  And how much distance doth lessen an object.  And that it is not the eye at all, or any rule in optiques, that can tell distance; but it is only an act of reason, comparing of one mark with another.  Which did both please and inform me mightily....  Thence back with my Lord to his house; all the way good discourse, informing of myself about optiques still....


At Deptford, 406 deaths by plague occurred in 1665, and 522 in 1666.

6.  ...in Fanchurch-street met with Mr Battersby; says he, "Do you see Dan Rawlinson's door shut up?" (which I did, and wondered); "Why," says he, "after all this sickness, and himself spending all the last year in the country--one of his men is now dead of the plague, and his wife and one of his maids sick, and himself shut up;" which troubles me mightily.  So home, and there do hear also from Mrs. Sarah Daniel that Greenwich is at this time much worse than ever it was, and Deptford too; and she told us that they believed all the town would leave the town, and come to London; which is now the receptacle of all the people from all infected places.  God preserve us.

7.  ...Reeves and I and they up to the top of the house, and there we endeavoured to see the moon and Saturne and Jupiter; but the heaven proved cloudy, and so we lost our labour, having taken pains to get things together in order to the managing of our long glass.  so down to supper and ... good discourse I had from him in his own trade concerning glasses....  I receive fresh intelligence that Deptford and Greenwich are now afresh exceedingly afflicted with the sickness, more than ever.

8.  ...discoursed with Mr. Hooke, whom we met in the street, about the nature of Sounds, and he did make me understand the nature of Musicall sounds made by Strings, mighty prettily; and told me that having come to a certain Number of Vibracions proper to make any tone, he is able to tell how many strokes a fly makes with her wings (those flies that hum in their flying) by the note that it answers to in Musique, during their flying.  That, I suppose, is a little too much raffined [refined]; but his discourse in general of sound was mighty fine....

On 26 August, 20 victims in one week were reported in Deal.  Ships avoided the port. 9.  ...Mrs. Rawlinson is dead of the sickness, and her maid continues mighty ill--he himself [Mr. Rawlinson] is got out of the house.  I met also with Mr. Eveling in the street, who tells me the sad condition at this very day at Deptford for the plague, and more at Deale (within his precinct, as one of the Commissioners for sick and wounded seamen) that the towne is almost quite depopulated....

10.  ...homeward, and hear in Fanchurch-street, that now the mayde also is dead at Mr. Rawlinsons; so that there are three dead in all, the wife, a manservant, and maidservant....

19.  Lords day.  ...by and by comes by agreement Mr. Reeves, and after him Mr. Spong; and all day with them, both before and after dinner till 10 a-clock at night, upon Opticke enquiries--he bringing me a frame with closes on, to see how the Rays of light do cut one another, and in a dark room with smoake, which is very pretty.  He did also bring a lantern, with pictures in glass to make strange things appear on a wall, very pretty.  We did also at night see Jupiter and his girdle and Satellites very fine with my 12-foot glass, but could not Saturne, he being very dark.  Spong and I also had several fine discourses upon the globes this afternoon, perticularly why the fixed stars do not rise and set at the same hour all the year long, which he could not demonstrate, nor I neither the reason of....  But it vexed me to understand no more from Reeves and his glasses touching the nature and reason of the several refractions of the several figured glasses, he understanding the acting part but not one bit the theory, nor can make anybody understand it--which is a strange dullness methinks....

The Great Fire of London, September 1666

2.  Lords day.  Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called us up about 3 in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City.  So I rose, and slipped on my nightgown, and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Markelane (Map 4, 10) at the furthest, but being unused to such fires as fallowed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. 

About 7 rose again to dress myself, and there looked out at the window and saw the fire not so much as it was, and further off.  So to my closet to set things to rights, after yesterday's cleaning.  By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fishstreet (Map 4, 2), by London Bridge.  So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J Robinsons little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge--which, among other people, did trouble me for poor little Michell and our Sarah on the Bridge.

So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it begun this morning in the King's bakers house in Pudding-lane (Map 4, 1), and that it hath burned down St. Magnes Church (Map 4, 3) and most part of Fishstreet already.  So I down to the water-side and there got a boat and through bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire.  Poor Michells house, as far as the Old Swan (Map 4, 4), already burned that way and the fire running further, that in a very little time it got as far as the Stillyard [Steel Yard] (Map 4, 5) while I was there. 

large open barges used to load or unload ships anchored in a harbor
Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the River or bringing them into lighters that lay off.  Poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stair by the water-side to another.  And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive, were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down. 

Having stayed, and in an hour's time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods and leave all to the fire; and having seen it get as far as the Steeleyard, and the wind mighty high and driving it into the City, and everything, after so long a drought, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches, and among other things, the poor steeple by which pretty Mrs. [Horsley] lives, and whereof my old school-fellow Elborough is parson, taken fire in the very top and there burned till it fall down--I to White-hall (Map 2, 8) with a gentleman with me who desired to go off from the Tower to see the fire in my boat--to White-hall, and there up to the King's closet in the chapel, where people came about me and I did give them an account dismayed them all; and word was carried in to the King, so I was called for and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw, and that unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire.  They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him and command him to spare no houses but to pull down before the fire every way.  The Duke of York bid me tell him that if he would have any more soldiers, he shall; and so did my Lord Arlington afterward, as a great secret. 

Here meeting with Captain Cocke, I in his coach, which he lent me, and Creed with me, to Pauls; and there walked along Watling-street as well as I could, every creature coming away loaden with goods to save--and here and there sick people carried away in beds.  Extraordinary good goods carried in carts and on backs. 

At last met my Lord Mayor in Canning Streete (Map 4, 6), like a man spent, with a hankercher about his neck.  To the King's message, he cried like a fainting woman, "Lord, what can I do?  I am spent.  People will not obey me.  I have been pull[ing] down houses.  But the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it."  That he needed no more soldiers; and that for himself, he must go and refresh himself, having been up all night. 

So he left me, and I him, and walked home--seeing people all almost distracted and no manner of means used to quench the fire.  The houses too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames-street (Map 4, 7)--and warehouses of oyle and wines and Brandy and other things.  Here I saw Mr Isaccke Houblon, that handsome man--prettily dressed and dirty at his door at Dowgate (Map 4, 8), receiving some of his brothers things, whose houses were on fire; and as he says, have been removed twice already, and he doubts (as it soon proved) that they must be in a little time removed from his house also--which was a sad consideration.  And to see the churches all filling with goods, by people who themselfs should have been quietly there at this time. 

By this time it was about 12 a-clock; and so home (Map 4, 9), and there find my guests, which was Mr. Wood and his wife, Barbary Shelden, and also Mr. Moone--she mighty fine, and her husband, for aught I see, a likely man.  But Mr. Moones design and mine, which was to look over my closet and please him with the sight thereof, which he hath long desired, was wholly disappointed, for we were in great trouble and disturbance at this fire, not knowing what to think of it.  However, we had an extraordinary good dinner, and as merry as at this time we could be.  While at dinner, Mrs. Batelier come to enquire after Mr. Woolfe and Stanes (who it seems are related to them), whose houses in Fishstreet are all burned, and they in a sad condition.  She would not stay in the fright. 

As soon as dined, I and Moone away and walked through the City, the streets full of nothing but people and horses and carts loaden with goods, ready to run over one another, and removing goods from one burned house to another--they now removing out of Canning-street (which received goods in the morning) into Lumbard Streete (Map 4, 11) and further; and among others, I now saw my little goldsmith Stokes receiving some friend's goods, whose house itself was burned the day after. 

We parted at Pauls (Map 4, 12), he home, and I to Pauls-Wharf (Map 4, 13), where I had appointed a boat to attend me; and took in Mr. Carcasse and his brother, whom I met in the street, and carried them below and above bridge, to and again, to see the fire, which was now got further, both below and above, and no likelihood of stopping it. 

Met with the King and Duke of York in their Barge, and with them to Queen-Hith (Map 4, 14) and there called Sir R[ichar]d Browne to them.  Their order was only to pull down houses apace, and so below bridge at the water-side; but little was or could be done, the fire coming upon them so fast.  Good hopes there was of stopping it at the Three Cranes (Map 4, 15) above, and at Buttolphs-Wharf (Map 4, 16) below bridge, if care be used; but the wind carries it into the City, so as we know not by the water-side what it doth there.

a small, boxed keyboard instrument River full of lighter[s] and boats taking in goods, and good goods swimming in the water; and only, I observed that hardly one lighter or boat in three that had the goods of a house in, but there was a pair of virginalls in it.

Having seen as much as I could now, I away to White-hall by appointment, and there walked to St James's Park, and there met my wife and Creed and Wood and his wife and walked to my boat, and there upon the water again, and to the fire up and down, it still encreasing, and the wind great.  So near the fire as we could for smoke; and all over the Thames, with one's face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of Firedrops--this is very true--so as houses were burned by these drops and flakes of fire, three or four, nay, five or six houses, one from another. 

When we could endure no more upon the water, we to a little alehouse on the Bankside (Map 4, 17) over against the Three Cranes, and there stayed till it was dark almost and saw the fire grow; and as it grow darker, appeared more and more, and in Corners and upon steeples and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire.

Barbary and her husband away before us.  We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill, for an arch of above a mile long.  It made me weep to see it.  The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruine.  So home with a sad heart, and there find everybody discoursing and lamenting the fire....


Go to:
  • Astronomia Magna (1537) by Paracelsus (1493-1541);
  • excerpts from the Diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703):
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