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Contagion by Letter

The plague that devastated Europe from 1400 to 1700 gave common folk and authorities alike a healthy fear of infection, the fear sometimes extending even to paper. Here is an excerpt from a letter written during the great plague of London: "Henceforth you must not look to be supplied with correspondence as you were wont. The plague is in the parish... and it grows very dangerous on both sides to continue an intercourse of Letters; not knowing what hands they pass through before they come to those to whom they are sent." - Reproduced with permission of McGraw-Hill, Inc. from The Illustrated Treasury of Medical Curiosity, by Art Newman. Copyright, 1988.
 


Contagion by Letter

Malta, which suffered a plague epidemic in 1675-1676 that took 8,732 lives, by 1720 instituted regulations that included the following: "Dispatches brought in by ships are not to be received unless they are first perfumed. The packets and letters are to be unpacked, disinfected by a double perfume and left exposed to the latter for twenty-four hours." Belief that contagion could inhere in paper still weighed heavily with the authorities when plague again visited Malta in 1813. Wood, in contrast to paper, was thought incapable of carrying contagion. Tablets of wood were used for writing bills, receipts, and other documents. - Reproduced with permission of McGraw-Hill, Inc. from The Illustrated Treasury of Medical Curiosity, by Art Newman. Copyright, 1988.
 


Contagion by Letter

Writing in 1961, a correspondent of the British Medical Journal notes that this "fallacy of epidemiological thought" is still alive at the turn-of-the-century. He relates how his father, a ship's surgeon, was required to take the ship's papers ashore at Algiers before anyone was allowed to land. "He was rowed to the medical officer's office. The papers were then handed through an inspection window, and opened out with two pairs of metal forceps which had previously been disinfected by flaming." - Reproduced with permission of McGraw-Hill, Inc. from The Illustrated Treasury of Medical Curiosity, by Art Newman. Copyright, 1988.
 


 
 
 
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