Black Cats and Biological Warfare: The History of the Plague


Studying this topic put me off my lunch. I’m starting to think I’ve a fascination with morbid history topics. First the KKK, then this. I’ve been planning on doing a piece on WWII, too. To save you the trouble of moseying on over to Wikipedia and enduring the images I had to, I want to introduce you, my reader (not a typo), to the Plague.

3 Types of Plague

The source of the plague is a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. Based on DNA extracted from burials in contemporaneous French cemeteries, we know that this was the cause of the Black Death. I won’t include pictures in case some of you are eating lunch. The most famous form of the plague is the bubonic plague. It is so named due to the characteristic symptom of painfully swollen lymphnodes (called buboes). The septicemic plague spreads through the bloodstream. The pneumonic plague, an advanced form of the bubonic plague, is the most infectious type. It is passed from person to person through airborne droplets coughed from the lungs.

The Black Death


The first known plague in Europe was the Plague of Justinian in 541 CE. It wiped out half of Europe’s population before 700 CE. Europe and Asia have seen a number of plagues. But none so bad as the one that ripped through the continents in the 1300s, killing an estimated 20 million people.

All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried [...] At every church they dug deep pits down to the water-table; and thus those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shovelled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.

After that imagery. I feel we need a pick up. (Warning for profanity).

The most famous plague is inarguably the Black Death, the bubonic form of the disease that ravaged Europe and Asia in the mid 1300s (~1346-1353 CE). The plague was born in the steppes between the Caspian and Black Seas in 1346. Plague reservoirs, like this region in Central Asia, are areas that are usually the foci of outbreaks of plague. (Here is a map of plague foci based on modern documentation and historical documentation.) Reasons for the name the Black Death vary – perhaps it was named after the color of the characteristic buboes of the disease. Or it was a mistranslation of the Latin word “Atra,” meaning ‘terrible’ or ‘black.’ It was not called the Black Death contemporaneously. It earned that name later. At the time it was called names such as the Great Dying.

The plague first touched Europe when a ship carrying plague victims docked in a Sicilian harbor. The men aboard were either dead or dying of the disease. The government swiftly sent the ship away, but it was too late.

Causes and Transmission


The bubonic plague incubates for 3-5 days before the victim falls ill. It takes another 3-5 days before the victim dies, which is 80% of cases at this time. The disease is typically carried in fleas and lice and can be transmitted to humans or animals. Animals and humans may also infect each other in the advanced pneumonic form. However, it is more difficult to spread the disease through humans or animals.

The disease spread more virulently during the summer and died off in the winter when the fleas died. The increase in trade during this period meant that the disease could spread uninhibited. Even the most remote villages could now be stricken by the plague. Ship transportation caused an unpredictable pattern of outbreaks. It spread the disease to new corners of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The only two countries in Europe that appear to have been spared the ravages of the disease are Iceland and Finland. This is primarily due to their lack of trade and geographic isolation.

Black Cats and Bloodletting: Cures and Scapegoats

Cats were actually beloved pets which dealt with pests such as rats in Medieval times.

Cats were actually beloved pets which dealt with pests such as rats in Medieval times.

Contrary to popular belief, the Church did not accuse witches as being a cause of the outbreak. In fact, the Church didn’t accept the existence of witches until 1484, one hundred years after the plague. It is a common misconception that the Pope called for the massacre of cats (since they are associated with witchcraft), which let the rat population explode and actually caused the spread of the Black Death. No such call was ever made by the Roman Catholic Church or the Pope.

This is not to say that people didn’t look for someone to blame. Lepers and beggars were blamed for the spread and transmission due to a lack of cleanliness and illness. Jews were accused of causing the plague in many parts of Europe (the notable exception being Italy and England). The latter had exiled Jews in 1290, so allegedly had no population of Jews). The persecution and violence against Jews was so bad that Pope Clement VI had to condemn these acts in 1348.

People were desperate to find a cure. Medicine at this time called for blood-letting, boil-lancing, burning herbs, inducing diarrhea, and bathing in rosewater. Creative means of cures included coating the victim in mercury and baking them in an oven.

I apologize for that imagery.

 When these methods proved ineffective, some people began flagellating themselves in repentance. The Pope also had to condemn this practice in 1349.

More effective methods of controlling the plague included quarantines, border control, and spy networks. The first quarantines in recorded history were carried out in the city of Ragusa. People had to carry health passports and cross border control if they came from a plague-stricken area. Spy networks reported back on new plague outbreaks.

A Ubiquitous Image: The Plague Doctor

17th century German Plague Doctor outfit

17th century German Plague Doctor outfit

The image we know of as the Plague Doctor does not actually come out of the Black Death, but out of a later epidemic of the plague.

The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak. Under the coat we wear boots made in Moroccan leather (goat leather) from the front of the breeches in smooth skin that are attached to said boots, and a short sleeved blouse in smooth skin, the bottom of which is tucked into the breeches. The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin…with spectacles over the eyes.
— Charles de l’Orme, chief physician to Louis XIII and inventor of the plague doctor suit, 1619

The plague doctors, while they did seek to find a cure and treat their patients, found themselves doing more counting than curing. Their log books are important records of deaths and the spread of the plague. They conducted autopsies, testified and witnessed for the dead and dying, and some took advantage of the victims with false cures. In general, plague doctors, though becoming a pariah within society for their close dealings with death, were considered brave and were highly-valued. There are cases of plague doctors being kidnapped for ransom… and the ransoms were paid.

Unit 731

WARNING: This topic is VERY dark. If you want to keep your faith in humanity, do not read this section.

A building on the former Unit 731 property in China.

A building on the former Unit 731 property in China.

Unit 731 is one of the darkest secrets kept out of history books. This Unit was the Japanese biological and chemical warfare research center, based in Manchuria (now Northern China). Never heard of it? The U.S. gave the doctors involved in this atrocity immunity at the end of the war in exchange for their research. Any time information about this Unit threatened to come to light, Japan and the U.S. quickly quashed it. Japan claimed there wasn’t enough evidence for it. The U.S. claimed it was “communist propaganda” until the 1990s. This is not unprecedented, as the U.S. did the same for many Nazi scientists under Operation Paperclip.

Unit 731 experimented on human test subjects – usually Chinese civilians or POWs, testing the lengths a human body could withstand. Doctors in training often practiced surgeries on subjects. They amputated healthy limbs and watched subjects bleed out to see how long it would take. They purposely gave inmates disease, frostbite, bullet wounds, burns, and STDs through forced rape between victims. They performed vivisections (dissections on living patients). All of this was done without anesthesia because it was claimed it would alter the results.

Photo of a decapitation of a POW.

Photo of a decapitation of a POW.

Unit 731 brought another epidemic of plague in the 20th century. Victims were told they were receiving vaccinations but were injected with plague. Some victims were chained to stakes in open fields and were bombed with “flea bombs” containing fleas infected with bubonic plague. This was done to study the effects of such weapons. They set these flea bombs on Chinese military and civilians in Ningho and Changde, causing an outbreak of plague in those cities.

Doctors from Unit 731 with a victim.

Doctors from Unit 731 with a victim.

At the end of the war, when Emperor Hirohito surrendered in 1945, the facility was burned down and the remaining living victims were shot. This meant there were no survivors to tell their stories – only the perpetrators. They were understandably tight-lipped about the entire operation until much later in life. When they burned down the facility, they purposely released plague-infected rats and fleas into the Chinese countryside, causing an epidemic which killed 20-30,000 people. 

General Shiro Ishii, head of Unit 731.

General Shiro Ishii, head of Unit 731.

Plague outbreaks continue to this day, mostly in areas such as Madagascar and Peru, though there are occasional cases of plague in the United States itself.