A brief history of my obsession with plagues

Plague T-Shirt

by Jamie Lutton

The last few weeks I have been watching the news about eight hours a day. watching Covid 19 spread around the world, the mounting numbers of the dead,and watching doctors begging for medical supplies, to mostly deaf ears. Learning about what a horrible illness and  death it was. And that no one took the warnings from China seriously.

Like Malcolm in Jurassic Park. I hate it when I am right.  I am horrified twice over, once for the world, my nation, and my city, But also that I saw it coming, and  I said little as I did not think anyone would believe me. This all goes back to when I quit reading SF books for fun. Back in the early eighties, when I was half way through college, I had gone on a history kick, reading about history books that year, besides my school work..I am a speed reader, so I could read a book every day or every two days. 

Got interested in ancient and medieval history, first off. Several of the books became personal favorites, ones I would re-read.

A chapter in one book sparked a lifelong interest in disease for me. Chapter 5 of A Distant Mirror by the historian Barbara Tuchman.

The book's thesis was that the 14th century was  a 'distant' mirror to our own time. The years 1340 to 1390 was her main focus {she left out the great horror of 1312 to 1318, where due to a climate cooling down 10% of Europe died of starvation. The cooling was caused by a large volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Reference THE GREAT FAMINE by William Chester Jordan.) This was a time of two Popes,  wars about the schism, political rivalries that shed a lot of blood, and worst of all, the Black Death killing as much as 40% of the population, mostly but not limited to the poor.  And it came back, every 10 to 15 years, for centuries. 

I bought and read as many books as I could on that first beakout, then went on to read about the plague outbreak of the 1660's, and the ones in the classical world, esp the one in the 7th century that led to the final collapse of the Roman Empire. 

When I opened a bookstore in 1987  I was looking for a theme for the shop t-shirt. In 1993 I hit on the idea of a shirt with partying rats on the front, and the motto 'Celebrating 650 years of the Plague,' with the name of the store on it. Part of the logic was that the Black Death had made more rags from clothing available for paper-making and raised the average income, which helped make the printed word viable as a medium. And with the chronic labor shortage, the struggle for human rights for the mass of people began. 

A decade later, the shirts were still popular, but the 650 year anniversary was long gone, so my business partner, John Watkins, came up with a design celebrating the next significant anniversary, 666 years, To make the shirt relevant for a longer period, he listed the history of the plague's passage on the back, like a band's tour t-shirt.

                   Plagues Progress

                      1331 China
                   1339 Central Asia
                    1340 South Asia
                     1345 Crimea
         1347  Constantinople, Genoa
         1348 Marseilles, Bristol  
         1349 Oxford, Dublin Bergen 

The front had a rat, or two rats (the design change year by year) on the front either in a party hat or drinking champagne together: with a modern city background.  The shirts were, of course, black, with white lettering.   I had to defend that shirt from time to time, but it always sold well to people who worked in the hospitals around me.  I kept thinking about other diseases, and reading more, and worrying more.  That shirt for me was warning everyone, through making at a macabre joke

I began to collect books on the history of disease - books on cholera, a 19th century pandemic from India that swept the world then (( one last holdout was Haiti, which got its first cases I know of after their earthquake, when UN soldiers introduced it there)

In England in 1854, there was a waterborne  cholera epidemic killing hundreds of thousands of their poor.  The outbreak in Soho, London was stopped when a brilliant doctor, John Snow, convinced the local council to disable the public water pump there. There are many doctors who were unsung  heroes fighting disease before the germ theory, even the journalist Daniel DeFoe, in his novel Journal of the Plague Year speculated that the 'creatures'  discovered using the newly invented microscope, 'might' be causing the disease.

Other books on smallpox, the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790's,  Polio, Typhoid, measles. rabies, syphilis, gonorrhea, A lot of these books were older,  focused on historical outbreaks, ending up with the discovery of the rat-flea-disease link with the plague, and Dr Jonas Salk and his Polio vaccine. Some spoke of Penicillin and the conquering of Syphilis at the end of World War ll. which had ruined millions of lives.  Third stage syphilis and the birth defects from syphilis are nearly unknown now.

They nearly all implied that we knew better now, with the advances in medicine, we would never have
a rampaging pandemic. Even the flu was conquered, with vaccination. 

Then in 1995 a book that sounded the alarm about new diseases on the horizon was published, The Coming Plague: Newly emerging diseases in a world out of Balance, by Laurie Garrett. 

This book and others that came after  linked the ravaging of the Earth's environment, with eating wild animals and cutting down ancient forests letting lose new disease on humanity. 

Doctors had thought in the 1960's, 1970's that that battle was over, and that studying epidemic disease as a specialty was foolish, as humanity had conquered all the major diseases that afflicted people, with only malaria, and mopping up the last of polio left, with venereal diseases as a rather minor problem.  

They had not thought about, or did not know yet that our biggest scourges jumped from animals to humans, nor realized that the wild held scourges to come, such as AIDS from wild apes,  etc that arrived in the mid 1970's. AIDS woke  up the world of medicine
that there were scourges just waiting to emerge, the recklessness in ignoring a small breakout.  AIDS was ignored in the US
until a friend of the POTUS of the time, Ronald Reagan died from it - Rock Hudson.  But then it was far too late,
AIDS was sweeping the world.

There are several books on this theme. Spillover, by David Quammen starts out with a mysterious disease jumping from the  environment of Australia, killing horses there, then killing veterinarians.   His focus also was the jump from wild animals, to domestic animals to humans. The book is more academic than, say, The Hot Zone, but has frightening accounts of what was on the horizon.  It is also very well written.  

Those books, and many others stressed that an virus of some kind, new to humanity, would arise and sweep the planet, causing many deaths and great anguish. 

The more I read, the more alarmed I got. I had wanted  to be a doctor, long ago, but I was not a good enough student of chemistry. I had been reading paleontology for pleasure, along with books on the history of disease, but The Coming Plague got me focusing on what was could be on the horizon, just waiting for a chance encounter to sweep the world. 

I began to read all the books I could on mysterious diseases, like the 'sweating' illness that killed the children of 
Thomas Cromwell, a minister in king Henry Vlll's court; the fictional biography of whom was Bring Up the Bodies, by Hillary Mantel. That disease came and went, killed thousands, and has not been named yet. It is an unknown illness of an unknown nature.

I got a subscription the CDC magazine to Emerging Infections.I tried to read every issue, they all had alarming/ interesting articles in them. Some diseases just last year jumped from Africa to the new world, the mosquito borne illness called Zika which would make fetuses damaged, giving them microcephaly, i.e. severely small heads and other brain damage. This spread to Central America and even Florida, and is endemic there now.

In 2014, I called up an ex employee ''Joe''  who  and told him in May that year to start watching the news out of Africa.  I watched the Ebola epidemic. in May or so there was only about 100 cases and 30 or so deaths, but having read The Hot Zone, I knew that this would go bad fast.

It had sprung up in a completely different part of Africa, where it had never been seen before.  The death rate and spread went up week by week, until by August thousands had died, and it had spread to three countries on the West Coast. I would call Joe and give him briefings, as I was worried that, like Zika later, it could jump and spread to other tropical nations.

I  but did not think America was in any danger, as it was  spread by blood and bodily fluids and would not get far in the West.  The experts that year kept saying that we did not have to be ''that'' alarmed as it would not spread easily in the West. I watched the struggles of Doctors Without Borders in Africa, as they were accused of spreading the disease, were threatened, as they went and tried  to quarantine and treat the sick and dying, some of them catching it themselves and dying.  The local doctors and nurses died in great numbers, they put their own lives at risk by exposure to Ebola from the sick and dying. I got into the habit of reading international news for stories like this after that. 

In fact, the world missed a worse threat than Ebola, when in Madagascar in the fall of 2017, a form of Pneumonic Plague akin to the Black Death  -- spread by breath -- broke out there.  The local government is a dictatorship, and did not care about the health of Madagascar's people. They had been in power so long, the health infrastructure was in shambles. So, there the Plague was 'endemic' -  Black Death there for decades. The island had a lot of non native rats that carried it.  Every fall there would be an outbreak around the time of the harvest, when the rats would multiply in great numbers, spread the disease to the population, who would catch the rats to eat them.

So that country had ''minor'' Black Death outbreaks every year for decades. Turns out that if you ignore a Black Death outbreak, especially a moderate sized one, it can and will make the ''jump'' to change it's nature and be spread by breath. A case would settle in the lungs, and be expelled in the victim's breath. Pneumonic Black Death is a real threat. Not spread by rat-flea-human link, but just by breath, as contagious as a cold, symptoms like a bad cold, but untreated the fatality rate is 80%.  And it kills quicker, sometimes in 24 hours.

Doctors Without Borders went in and did a big cleanup, medical exams, got rid of a lot of rats, tested thousands, 
and after a month or so, stamped that epidemic out.  We were very lucky  -  - that time.

I read the news every day that fall, reading the local news in English coming from Madagascar as I knew how bad the Pneumonic version could be. Planes leave Madagascar going to at least 5 countries, and it could easily 
have 'jumped' to Africa, India, Saudi Arabia , Australia in one flight. All it would take would be people not paying attention, ignoring a disease breakout in a poor country like Madagascar.

So what with those two outbreaks, I read a lot of international news. About this time I read up on SARS and MERS.  The fatality rate for both is very high, but both seem to only be contagious when symptoms are showing themselves, so it didn't  spread very easily. Also, people went in and suppressed it, mostly again Doctors Without Borders. And other worried epidemiologists who saw the threat and acted right away.  One expert at least died trying to treat the patients. One thing I learned from my reading about SARS and MERS then that some of our 'old' diseases, like the measles, smallpox, etc jumped from domestic animals pigs, cattle, sheep.  Sheep may be the origin of measles - as in the modern era MERS jumped from camels.  The more I read, the more alarmed I got. It became a minor obsession.  I would take customers aside and suggest they read books on plagues of all kinds, when they said they liked nonfiction.  I looked for these books for my shop as well.  Whenever I had a customer who did not  know what they wanted to read, I pushed  The Hot Zone,  books on the plague, books on Yellow Fever, etc.

I realized that I had made a career mistake, I should have gone into public health.  I kept discussing this subject with customers, as  I was alarmed, and I wanted others to be. The shop T Shirt was my way of making people think about disease, and maybe, like me, start paying attention. The aftermath of the Black Death pushed the West towards a better world.  But at what human cost.

Now up to the present.

I am used to not being believed.  I am bi/polar, and an old woman, who does not 'nice' clothing, heels -- I have these two strikes against me being believed.

Also, I am not a medical expert, just a bookseller.

In early February,  I went to my kidney specialist, who I like a lot - he cracks jokes about Trump -- in mid January 2020  I told him I was worried about my own health -- but everyone's health. I was getting very alarmed. by the news out of China. also,  I had a kidney transplant a year ago,and was worried about catching this.  I am high risk of getting very sick.  I asked him - I cornered him, speaking earnestly - - What did he think? Could someone raise an alarm?? No one in America seemed to be worried enough .  . . I thought that this was going to get really bad.

But, He patted me on the head, told me not to worry, and handed me some face masks. laughing just a little. He thought I was being amusing, again.  So worried about nothing.


I had a phone conference with him three weeks ago, about my health, I have to check in with him every 2 months or so.  I did not come in as the Covid was raging by then, and doctors were only doing phone conferences. After the usual visit, I said ''I hope you can admit I was right'  Silence, then he laughed again.

Wish I could have seen his face.

I am very sorry I did not call the local media - at least the Seattle Times?? The Stranger?? and say 'you should write about this, this is going to be very bad. This is going to sweep over us!' But  I did not expect to be believed.  I could not even get my step son to move Stock Market money around to protect our savings. He thought I was an alarmist. FYI I had been trying to get him to read the old books about Market crashes, some of which are hilarious, as well as informative (THE GREAT CRASH 1929 by J.K. Galbraith. Read the Second edition where he talks about the death threats he got around the time he wrote the book. I have read it in excess of 15 times. It is a penny and postage on ABE Books. Go order it - it is a must read. very good writer.)

It is my nature to get excited about a lot of things, and  try to get others excited. Most people can't be made excited by such ''dry'' stuff. This has discouraged me from years of me getting excited by this book or that    - but I should have seen this time it was an emergency, that I should have been yelling about this outbreak. .

So, I apologize for not making a bigger fuss.

I am sick at heart.  Even if I had started yelling in January, I do not think any one would believe me. I should have tried harder, but like the 2017 Pneumonic plague outbreak in Madagascar. I still thought- well maybe it wont get here. . . I was wrong about that one. I had been really alarmed by that outbreak, as pneumonic plague is so easy to catch and has such a high mortality rate.

Doctors Without Borders reigned that outbreak in.  And surely the experts in charge of worrying about this has it well in hand . . .right? The experts know what they are doing, right?  They will tell us what to do. This is not my job to raise the alarm.  So, I only bugged my doctor. And talked to a few customers, employees.

I did not want to be Horton, trying to get hostile people to see something invisible and to take it seriously.  Horton was laughed at by everyone over something they could not see.  Dr. Seuss can be quite profound about human nature.

But - the people who did know better -who tried to brief Trump in early February about how bad it would get - the ones who also saw, and had the credentials - the people who run this country, the POTUS blew them off.  He thought doing anything would 'spook' the Stock Market. He called Covid 19 a 'Democrat's Hoax' etc for weeks.

And here we are, locked down, and the people we hired to look after us failed us. Let us never forget the experts knew months ago but could not get our leaders to act in time.  To create hundreds of thousands of Covid 19 tests, find people infected, and trace their contacts - - isolate the infected, before the disease was everywhere, like South Korea did.  We now have the worst pandemic of Covid 19 in the world, and  will lose, according to Trump, if we are lucky, ''only'' 200,000 American lives. 

We have a terrible time ahead of us. We must remember the spring of 2020,  the stay at home orders, the deaths of our family and friends, the overrun pleading hospitals, tent hospitals, hospital ships, Governors who laughed and refused to issue the orders for a quarantine that would save the lives of their citizens, saying it was 'bad for business'.

We can prevent, finally and forever being run over by epidemic, pandemic  disease. Listen to experts and act - and teach our kids to love science, and believing experts over wishful thinkers.  To not think of money first, when bad news comes. Ever see the movie Jaws? The mayor refused to close the beaches, chose money over the safety of the people on the beach.   That movie is still a favorite - not so much for the shark, but of everyday fighting for reason over avarice, shortsightedness  in the modern world.


Here is a list of books I liked, read more than once, about pandemics and plagues. This is in no way complete, I probably left out some very good tiles, please tell me if you read some I missed and did not list here. For fiction, I recommend JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR by Daniel DeFoe,  He fictionalized stories his uncle had told him, who had lived through the Black Death pandemic of 1666, that swept through London and killed 40% of the population. The Norton Edition has very good notes, points out that DeFoe references the microscope, and seeing creatures in it, remarking  that 'perhaps they cause this plague'  . . . then moving on.  We were very close to seeing the connection centuries before we did, the evidence is in DeFoe's book.   Fiction sometimes teaches better than nonfiction.

Also -  THE BLACK DEATH, A PERSONAL HISTORY -- by John Hatcher -- Set in a market town in England. this title is about 15 years old. you follow the fates of several characters in that town. Touches on the fact that citizens of England saw Black Death coming for months before it reached England, the news carried to them by fleeing people gave the word.  Very good novel, lots of small details of the time, what it was like to live then. written by a Black Death expert.

YEAR OF WONDERS is pretty good, following a woman's fate in the Black Death year of 1666.

For non-fiction  

THE BLACK DEATH 1346 to 1353, by Ole J. Benedictow, This is the best modern book on the 14th century Black Death. It the raises the possibility that there was an anthrax outbreak at the same time. Lots of math in it. Very long.  I read it twice.

Other modern books:

THE BLACK DEATH a chronicle of the plague. All original sources like Petrarch, DeFoe, Boccaccio, and Machivelli.
Am re reading this one right now

THE COMING PLAGUE- I mentioned before,

SPILLOVER  by Quannem - same


DIABOLICAL VIRUS  by Bill Wasik  this disease is carried

primarly by bats, like Ebola, do not miss this book.

The horrible days before a vaccine - really worth reading.

NO TIME TO LOSE  by Peter Piot, the discoverer of Ebola

VIRUS by Frank Ryan - Tracking the new killer plagues.

other older titles  

BRING OUT YOUR DEAD   J.H. Powell 1949 history of 'The Great

Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793

VIRUSES, PLAGUES, & HISTORY  Micheal B. A. Oldstone

A good Ebola book about the first big outbreak in the 1990's is


the huge outbreak of Ebola in 2014, 

 DEMON IN THE FREEZER  all of these are by Richard Preston  -- the second book is about the history of 

Germ warfare. Not to be missed!!  There has been a lot of paranoia that Covid 19

was release as 'germ warfare'.  This book covers real germ warfare of the 20th century,

including accidents with a virus in Russia in the 1970's that killed thousands.

The first book  I read on the 14tth century outbreak alone was Philip Zegler's 

THE BLACK DEATH,  written in 1969.

PLAGUES AND PEOPLES wrtten in 1976 by William H. McNeill, covers 

classical plague outbreaks, the post Colombian disease exchange, with

a chapter on the history of fighting plagues, diseases from 1700 on.


Also  Pepy's diaries of that year, as he stayed in London.

((There is a book with just extracts of that, could not find the title))


good background to what London was like then, the backdrop of so many of Shakespeare's plays.

and how the Black Death was a scourge that would sweep through Europe every 15 years or so

for nearly 400 years. 

One last thought.  The only way the Black Death and other diseases  after that were stopped was quarantine.  Thought up by the Venetians, they would make ships wait for 40 days before unloading, the term quarantine' comes from the Italian word 'quarantine", or '40'.  It worked to stop epidemic Black Death in 1740s, when all nations in Europe finally  quarantined houses when they had a case of the disease in that house. The practice was being tried in the plague of 1666 in London. In cities, people would hang out of a window, lowering baskets with money in it, and food would be put in it, and the basket would be hauled in.  If they left that house, they would be killed. .

As we hide in our own houses, One last thought.  The only way the Black Death and other diseases after that was quarantine.   .

As we hide in our houses in 2020, with a 'shelter in place' order to stop or at least slow down Covid 19,

the methods we use today have not changed much since centuries. 

Our basic weapon against pandemics have not changed that much - 

with all the advances in science, we have only added masks and washing our hands - germ theory.

 . The front doors would be marked

in red, the doors were boarded up, and guards put in place.

At least we dont have our doors boarded up.  Yet.

On Passover, I remembered the Jews surviving the hand of God by staying inside
as Egypt lost their first born, and have never forgotten that night.

I always thought that might be a memory of a plague, waiting inside, till the disease was stopped.
It always was strange to me that being inside, staying inside, saved the Jews, thousands of years ago.

Please stay inside  - have patience - 

and keep washing your hands.

And remember this horrible time when you vote in the fall.

PS saw this online "Why is it that every disaster movie starts with people
in charge not believing the scientists?"