9 Weird Historical Ways to Ward Off a Plague
By late July 1665, London was a city in crisis. The Royal Family had fled, the wealthy hurriedly packed for their escape, and authorities collected the dead under the cover of night to avoid a panic. “But, Lord! How the plague spreads,” wrote Samuel Pepys in his diary on July 22.
Pepys, though, was surprisingly calm. Earlier that day he ran into a co-worker’s family and received a helpful gift. “My Lady Carteret did this day give me a bottle of plague-water,” he reported. Plague-water, usually some mix of herbs steeped in wine, was one of many unusual and sadly ineffective concoctions intended to fortify the body against the plague. It was one of the more pleasant ones. Here are nine more strange, gross, or downright dangerous historical ways to ward off the plague.
1. Smoke tobacco.
“No One thing is so generally Approved of and Recommended by Physicians to prevent and keep off the PLAGUE or any other Infectious Distemper, as is the SMOAKING of Tobacco,” says a 1722 health guide.
2. Drink alcohol ...
Liquids were thought to absorb infection from the air and become an easy way to catch disease. “We must fortifie them, that they may not easily admit the approaches of their Enemy,” wrote Thomas Willis in 1691. “Wine and Confidence are a good Preservative against the Plague.”
3. ... But don't drink too much alcohol.
There can, of course, be too much of a good thing. One of the oldest bits of plague-dodging medical advice was to follow the example of Socrates, who survived the Athenian epidemic of the 420s BCE. “Even amid the havoc of that plague,” wrote Aulus Gellius, “by temperate and abstemious habits he is said to have avoided the ill-effects of indulgence.”
4. Sniff your own farts.
The air was thought to be dangerous, so strong smells were believed to repel infection. Vinegar, powerful spices, and even one’s own flatus—or, “prat whids”—which could be stored in jars, were common defenses against infection.
5. Drink your own urine.
Forget about an apple a day. Officials in Venice actually recommended citizens drink their own urine each morning to rid the city of plague in the 16th century.
6. Make your own herbal supplements.
This one was easy enough provided you had the right ingredients. Roots of Virginian-snakeweed, zedoary, contrayerva, and species liberans, were all that were necessary. Simply boil pestilential vinegar, add your herbs, and “make all into Lozenges.”
7. Don’t have sex (unless that’s difficult for you).
In his 1481 treatise Advice against the Plague, Marsilio Ficino recommended one “abstain from coitus and thoughts of passion; that is, to the extent that its absence isn’t too burdensome.”
8. Drink coffee.
It was the age of reason, but Cambridge professor Richard Bradley seemed to forget the eminently reasonable maxim that correlation does not imply causation in 1721. “In some parts of Turkey, where the Plague is almost constant, it is seldom mortal in those Families, who are rich enough to enjoy the free Use of Coffee,” he wrote. “The Poorer Sort, who want that Benefit, seldom escape.”
9. Build a robust public health infrastructure—without women.
Bradley’s fellow Royal Society member, Richard Mead, also recommended measures to fight plague grounded in scientific reasoning, like contact tracing. “The Management in former Times neither answers the Purpose of discovering the Beginning of the Infection, nor of putting a stop to it when Discovered,” he complained in 1720 as the plague ravaged Marseille. One solution: “Instead of ignorant old Women, who are generally appointed Searchers in Parishes to inquire what Diseases People die of, That Office should be committed to understanding and diligent Men.”
The plague struck London anyway. But Mead’s more thoughtful recommendations helped build support for modern public health measures. In the 1722 edition of his book he advocated for the creation of a “Council of Health” composed of scientists, politicians, and community leaders to more effectively manage future pandemics.