Superstition and Disease


The current furor over the Ebola outbreak prompted me to consider the role of disease in the past. During the Middle ages there was no conception of the role bacteria and viruses play in the transmission of disease so everything was ascribed to God, the Devil, or witchcraft. The birth of a deformed calf, destruction of crops, soured milk or ale or an outbreak of some disease could mean a witch had set a curse. As I mentioned in a previous post, witch hunts continued in the United States until the middle of the 1800s. (And belief in the supernatural did not end then. There was tremendous interest in spiritualism, attracting no lesser a personage than Arthur Conan Doyle, and belief in fairies encouraged by faked photographs. But I digress.) Paradoxically, it is believed that some of the worst incidents of witch hunts and trials were magnified by poor harvest (so people were hungry and scared) and by the growth of ergot on the grains (so people were also tripping). Talk about a perfect storm.

I suspect Granny medicine – the old wise women who knew treatments from trial and error – like that certain kinds of mold could cure infection also played a part in tarring these women with the taint of witchcraft.  A host of measures to counter spells were in use. Some of the measures employed to keep a witch out of a house: storing apples (really!), a bag of salt under the master bed, a horseshoe or a clove of garlic hung over each entrance. Of course, if a spell was cast upon you, you had to employ certain methods to counteract that spell. To counteract a spell one would put seven drops of vegetable oil in a dish of water with some iron and rub the outside of the dish clockwise for three minutes. Doing so seven days would completely break the spell.

Of course such treatments had no effect on diseases. Diptheria, cholera, smallpox, the list of diseases is long. Smallpox, although us moderns have never seen a case, has been around so long scientists are not sure when it began. The theory is, though, that this disease also came out of Africa (like Ebola) and spread via trade routes.. Mummies with smallpox scars have been found in Egyptian tombs so it has been around for millennia. By my character, Will Rees’s time, advances in treating disease were beginning. At the beginning of the 1700s, vaccination as a treatment for smallpox was spreading. ( Live smallpox virus from an infected person was used – Yipes!!) The death rate for vaccination was 2%, unvaccinated and infected naturally = 14%. Edward Jenner, an orphan, was vaccinated as a boy. He had heard tales that dairymaids infected with cowpox never got smallpox. A few experiments later and in 1796 vaccination with cowpox as a treatment for smallpox was born. Rees would have seen many people with the characteristic round scars left by smallpox.   Except for some vials that are in storage, smallpox has been eradicated. I suspect Ebola will be also, eventually.