“After all, it really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic” – Margaret Chan. This quote very well reflects the pain that all of humanity goes through when a pandemic hits the earth. Large scale deaths of people failed public health services, and all-around negativity and uncertainty are some of the characteristics of said pandemics. Let us revisit one such pandemic that took place in 1720 – The Great Plague of Marseille which was the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in western Europe.
Bubonic plague is one of the three types of plague caused by bacterium Yersinia pestis. One to seven days after exposure to the bacteria, flu-like symptoms develop. These symptoms include fever, headaches, and vomiting.
The Great Plague of Marseille
Here is a small overview of the damage the pandemic had – It arrived in France in 1720 and claimed the lives of over 100,000 people across two years until 1722. This happened despite the country being ready for such outbreaks. The city board had learned its lessons since the last outbreak in the 1580s. The city board had instated a sanitation board which constituted of doctors and health servants and was designed to improve the situation of public health and to tackle any major disease outbreaks. This board also established the first hospital in the city and looked after the accreditation of doctors.
Ship checking and bills of health
The board devised a very clever method of inspecting ships that came to their port in order to check them and allow access to the city premises. Each incoming ship was supposed to be inspected. A person from the sanitation board checked where the ship had been and cross-referenced it from a list of suspected cities where there had been news or rumors of the pandemic. Then all the crew and goods were inspected to check for any possible disease symptoms. On the basis of such checks, the crew was supposed to spend a certain number of days in a quarantine camp. After which, if no signs or symptoms were discovered, they were allowed access to the city.
In spite of such good checking mechanisms and health infrastructure in place, the city couldn’t escape the wrath of the bubonic plague outbreak. It arrived at the port of Marseille from the Levant upon the merchant ship Grand-Saint-Antoine. The vessel had departed from Lebanon.
The vessel was quarantined, but its owner—who also happened to be Marseille’s deputy mayor—convinced health officials to let him unload its cargo. Plague-carrying rat fleas soon spread across the city, sparking an epidemic. In a few days, the disease broke out in the city. Hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, and residents panicked, driving the sick from their homes and out of the city. Mass graves were dug but were quickly filled. Eventually, the number of dead overcame city public health efforts, until thousands of corpses lay scattered and in piles around the city.
There were a lot of harsh measures that were enforced in order to stop the spread. There was a death penalty for any communication between Marseille and the rest of Provence. A plague wall, or mur de la peste, was erected across the countryside. Parts of this wall are still visible across the countryside even today.
Impact and aftermath
During a two-year period, some 50,000 people from Marseille died. An additional 50,000 people died in the surrounding areas. The death rate was estimated at 25-50% of the population with different districts reporting different numbers. After the plague subsided, the royal government strengthened the plague defenses of the port. A double line of fifteen-foot walls ringed the whitewashed compound, pierced on the waterside to permit the offloading of cargo from lighters. Merchantmen were required to pass inspection at an island further out in the harbor, where crews and cargoes were examined.
Surely, such an epidemic gave an important lesson to the government which was to closely monitor every ship and its cargo which could have been the carrier of a major disease. Considering the time when the problem unfolded, the city had the subpar infrastructure to handle the outbreak which leads to such catastrophic damage.