You are here

Library display case Queen's College
We started a series of podcasts in 2019, capturing the talks associated with our exhibitions. 


Contagion on the Page

We do not yet know how the Covid-19 pandemic will be remembered, but it has brought to mind other outbreaks of disease in the past. Some, such as the Spanish Flu, have been partly forgotten for years, while others, such as the Bubonic Plague, still haunt our collective memory. But all have left their traces on the printed page, as people have attempted to understand the disease and what it meant to their lives. This collection of materials from the library of The Queen’s College, Oxford, explores some of the ways people lived with disease and epidemics in the past.

Prevention and Cures

While the books on Covid-19 are still being written, we are fortunate in Queen’s to have a great body of work on past pandemics, in particular plagues. It can be surprising to see the parallels – as well as the stark differences – between our experiences of pandemics compared to those of the past, as illustrated by our collections. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen its fair share of hare-brained explanations for illness, as well as dubious remedies, and our books share some very familiar concerns. A number of our books offer supposed remedies for the plague, though we make no promises that they will work. Several of our books refer to the obsolete miasma theory of disease transmission, which held that contagions were spread through ‘bad air’.

"A Potched Egge with vineger"

This short pamphlet, printed in Oxford during the English Civil War, offers preventative tips for avoiding the plague and advice for the treatment of boils and sores. The pamphlet evinces a concern with miasma, recommending that readers burn wood (or scented candles!) in order to purify their homes from noxious smells. For diet, they recommend ‘a Potched Egge with Vineger’, along with figs and walnuts. After the dubious advice that sores should be treated with a roasted onion filled with treacle and figs, the pamphlet ends on a decidedly sombre note: “those that dye, are to be buried in remote places, and deep in the ground.”

Physicall Directions in time of Plague. Printed by command from the Lords of the Councell (Oxford, 1644). Sel.b.131(5)

image shows a page of a book with the title physical directions in times of plague
Purified air

Written in 1666 during the Great Plague, Thomas Willis’ posthumously published ‘plaine and easie method’ offers practical advice for avoiding contagion as well as remedies for those who have fallen ill. Willis’ focus on purifying the air we breathe, rooted in the (obsolete) theory of miasmatic disease transmission, feels oddly familiar to our brave new world of droplets, fomites and aerosols. However, we suspect his instruction to purify the air by burning sulphur, pitch and tar within the home might not meet Chris Whitty’s approval. Many will get behind the advice that readers should fortify their spirits with ‘Wine and Confidence’, though the accompanying spoonful of vinegar may not be quite so welcome.

Thomas Willis, A Plain and Easie Method for Preserving [ by God’s blessing ] those that are Well from the Infection of the Plague, or any Contagious Distemper in City, Camp, Fleet, &c. and for Curing such as are Infected with it (London, 1691). NN.s.2873

Cold water

John Hancocke’s tract Febrifugum magnum offers a familiar remedy for fevers: drinking cold water. Hancocke recommends water as a cure for a vast number of illnesses, among them plague, asthma, smallpox, measles and perhaps even gout – ‘but that I am not so sure of’. Hancocke suggests half a pint a day for a child, and a pint (or even a quart) for a man or woman, and also recommends bathing in cool water. It is the coldness of water that Hancocke thinks most useful, in ensuring the circulation of the blood: ‘the Poison in malignant Fevers, is easier and safer to be drowned and absorbed in proper cooling Liquids, than burnt up with hot fiery Medicines.’

John Hancocke, Febrifugum Magnum: Or, Common Water the best cure for Fevers, and probably for the Plague…: With a Discourse of Curing the Chin-Cough by Water (London, 1726). NN.s.73(2)

Sir John Floyer studied at Queen’s College in the late seventeenth century and bequeathed 150 volumes from his library to the College. As a physician, he combined respect for the ancients, such as Galen and Hippocrates with a new spirit of medical enquiry. One of the fruits of this research was this essay on cold bathing, which he deemed beneficial to many diseases, including the plague – as well as nightmares. His belief encouraged the creation of baths at Lichfield, in part to counteract the warming effects on the body of the new vogue for tea and coffee. His concern for the measurement of the pulse, and the development of watches with second hand and stopping mechanism for this purpose, remains a durable medical practice. 

John Floyer, The Ancient [Psychrolousia] Revived: or, an Essay to Prove Cold Bathing both Safe and seful (London, 1702). HS.b.386.

Among the Floyer materials donated to the College by Dennis Gibbs can be found a Victorian edition of The History of Cold Bathing (1844). Kept in the ‘Drawing room at Amberslade’ by its owner, the recommendation for cold water bathing for haemorrhoids and other ‘ruptures’, was put into practice. An annotation at the foot notes: ‘I have myself met with a case of constant nausea, pain, & diarrhoea produced by a ventral rupture in which nothing did so much good as the cold bath.’

Sir John Floyer, The History of Cold Bathing, both Ancient and Modern (Manchester, 1844) HS.b.390

By The Queene

The arrival of plague led to a range of legislative responses, from killing cattle in or near the City of London, the shuttering of theatres, calls to create more room for those living next to the river, and the ‘pestering’ (quarantining) of strangers and foreigners. As the historian Paul Slack notes, ‘England had no regular mechanism for controlling communication with infected foreign ports before the seventeenth century. The government simply acted ad hoc, when an obvious threat was brought to notice’ (The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 1985), p. 221). In this 1581 proclamation, concern about the ‘infection of the plague’ caused Queen Elizabeth to curtail the activities of the courts in Michaelmas Term.

Elizabeth I, By the Queene a proclamation for ther adjournement for parte of michaelmas terme (London, 1581). Sel.b.230(156).

Mustard Plasters

In this letter from 1887 to Canon Isaac Taylor (who a few years before had survived an attack of typhoid fever), the Assyriologist and linguist Revd. Prof. Archibald Henry Sayce reveals that they shared a common but unwelcome affliction caused by another coronavirus: the common cold. Sayce had resorted to mustard plasters, a poultice of mustard seed powder spread over the chest, but this increasingly outdated remedy had not worked and Sayce was ‘still a prisoner to the house’. Sayce typically wintered in Egypt, as a result of his poor health (including weak lungs), where his library-equipped Nile boat, the Dahabeevah, enabled him to continue work on his scholarship afloat. As is the case with many archives, the final letters relate to the creator’s passing. Among his last letters before he died in 1933, are the pencil lines: ‘I have been very ill. It would have been better to have passed to a world where there is no need of breathing.’    

A.H. Sayce Papers. (Letter from MS531)

New Perspectives

How is a pandemic or a new disease to be understood? What are its risks and how can we assess them? Over time, approaches to disease have changed as medical understanding has developed, as indeed has our understanding of risk and mortality, with newspapers publishing regular updates on the R0 and estimated IFR. New technologies, methods and the sharing and testing of knowledge has increased our power to manage disease and its social consequences. At the same time, older fears and uncertainties remain with us, and outbreaks of disease not only reveal weaknesses in human immune systems, but also inequalities in society

Scale and Perspective

2020 has reminded us of the power of invisible contagious agents and the harm they can wreck on normal life. The microscopic world began to be explored in the C17th century. Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) made visible the minute thanks to his invention of the compound microscope and drew out the connections to our larger world, including the first human sighting of a microorganism (the microfungus Mucor, which can cause zygomycosis infections). The SARSr-CoV-2 virion which causes the disease COVID-19 measures between 60 and 140 nanometres (a nanometre is one billionth of a metre): the IMF estimates that the pandemic will cost the world economy some $28 trillion in lost output between 2020 and 2025; the charge in lives worldwide has already reached 1.5 million and an as-yet unknown impact on survivors’ physical and mental health. SARSr-CoV-2 is too minute to be seen by an optical microscope, but the image of the virus has nonetheless embedded in our imaginations, as well as on countless immune systems.

Robert Hooke, Micrographia: or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses (London, 1665). Sel.f.77.


The importance of numbers

In the mid-seventeenth century, bills of mortality were published weekly, listing the supposed cause of death of those who died in London, offering their wealthy readership an early alert of the arrival or spread of plague, and allowing them to leave the city for the cleaner air of the countryside. John Graunt, a wealthy London draper and member of the Royal Society, realised that these lists could be used to estimate both life expectancies for different groups and an accurate estimate of the population of London. Such figures offered the opportunity for apparently cold calculations, such as the speed which London would be repopulated following a plague.

John Graunt, Natural and Political Observations Mentioned in a Following Index and made upon the Bills of Mortality, 5th ed. (London, 1676). KK.m.82.


Society’s response to pandemics is closely linked to the perception and management of risk. In 1693, the astronomer - and former Queen’s College student - Edmond Halley, studied the birth and death records of the city of Breslau, which had been sent to the Royal Society. From this data, he produced a set of tables showing the life expectancy for a citizen at various ages, and from these he could calculate the cost of life annuities. Influenced by Graunt’s work, this method forms the basis for modern actuarial practice and contributed to the development of probability theory. Calculations of risk inform - and complicate - our current responses to the pandemic.

Edmond Halley, ‘An Estimate of the Degrees of the Mortality of Mankind, drawn from curious Tables of the Births and Funerals at the City of Breslaw’, Philosophical transactions (London, 1693). NN.a.1/11.

Sleeping Sickness

Old Member Oliver Sacks’ 1993 memoir, Awakenings, of treating patients with epidemic encephalitis lethargica– ‘sleeping sickness’ – became a publishing sensation, the inspiration for Harold Pinter’s play A Kind of Alaska (1983), and a 1990 film nominated for three Academy Awards. Treated with a new drug, L-DOPA, patients from the 1917-1927 epidemic, undergo, in Sack’s words ‘an enduring awakening, and enjoy possibilities of life which had been impossible, unthinkable, before the coming of L-DOPA’. It is a reminder of the benefits and limits of pharmacology, and the varied effects of physical disease on the human mind. The epidemic overlapped with the Spanish Flu, which perhaps ‘lowered resistance to it in a catastrophic way’.

Oliver Sacks, Awakenings (New York, 1987). RC141.E6.SA.

Further Reading

Bracken, Rachel Conrad. Transforming Contagion: Risky Contacts among Bodies, Disciplines, and Nations (New Brunswick, NJ, 2018)

Charters, Erica & Koen Vermeir, eds., Centaurus Spotlight Issue: Histories of Epidemics in the Time of Covid-19, 62:2 (2020)

Gest, H., ‘The Discovery of Microorganisms by Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Fellows of the Royal Society’, Notes and Records, 58:2 (2004)

Mann, Annika. Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print. (Charlottesville, VA, 2018)

Slack, Paul, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 1985)

Wald, Priscilla. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Durham, N.C. & London, 2008)