rats.jpg"¢ The greatest plague of the fourteenth century was known as the Great Mortality. Spread by rats and fleas, it killed over 20 million people in Europe alone in just a few years. Medieval people thought the world was coming to an end. (Rat picture courtesy of ChemBark.)

"¢ We call plague "bubonic" because of one of its chief symptoms — buboes in the armpits and groin (for the brave and strong-stomached, here's a picture). Unlike syphilis, which can last for decades, plague could kill you in a couple hours.

"¢ During the late 13th century, armies in present-day Ukraine heaved corpses infected with plague into enemy camps — an early instance of biologic warfare.

"¢ As terrible as epidemics are, they sometimes have a bright side. Historian Barbara Tuchman says that plague shook up the rigid social order of the Middle Ages, and paved the way for individual rights.

"¢ You'd think folks would be happy to see plague disappear, but someone had the great idea to turn it into a weapon. Soviet scientists produced tons of plague spores during the Cold War. These were never used, but many of the scientists involved may now be working in secret Russian labs (cue evil laughter).

The Plague is perhaps the most famous novel by French philosopher Albert Camus. It focuses on an Algerian city quarantined during a severe bubonic outbreak, while also metaphorically tackling the "plague" of Fascism and the struggle of individuals against absurd odds.

(CDC Plague Map)

"¢ Today, about a dozen cases of plague occur in the U.S. every year, mainly in desert Southwest, where the bacillus hangs out in rats and other rodents. That's why some residents like to call their region (cue brass band) "the land of the fleas and the home of the plague."

Didn't catch Syphilis yet? Read about yesterday's Infamous Epidemic.