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15 Historic Diseases that Competed with Bubonic Plague

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The Bills of Mortality (also called "London's Dreadful Visitation") recorded deaths in London. For the week of December 20–27, 1664, there were 291 deaths of various causes—including a very ominous one:

Confirmed death by Bubonic Plague: 1.

Throughout 1665, the Bills documented the horrific exponential growth of what would come to be called the Great Plague. By September 12–19, 1665, thousands were dying weekly:

Confirmed death by Bubonic Plague: 7165.

In light of the monstrosity of the 1665 Plague (caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis), which killed about 100,000 people—nearly a quarter of London's population—it's almost unseemly to notice that people were dying of other things. There's a terrible irony in having the immune system (or luck) to survive a deadly epidemic only to be killed by drowning or dehydration.

But die of other causes people did, and the ways they met their fate are compiled in the Bills of Mortality. Many are familiar enough (cough, fever, small pox), but many more either don’t exist anymore or are largely unrecognizable by their 17th-century names. Here is a look into the antiquated diseases that managed to kill even those the Plague couldn’t catch. 

1. “Winde”

Suffering winde seemed to be the polite way of saying your meal was mildly disagreeable to you. But it is listed throughout the Bills as a constant cause of death, which seems unlikely for flatulence. Winde more likely was used here in the same way we say, “he knocked the wind out of me,” meaning the patient died of constricted breathing. More specifically, winde is thought to be chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition usually caused by smoking. 

2. “Purples”

Purples presented exactly as you’d expect: purple blotches on the body. It was caused by the breaking of small blood vessels just under the skin. You didn’t die from the Purples, also called Purpura. You died from whichever of the many conditions were causing your blood vessels to weaken and burst, such as scurvy, or a blood or heart disorder. 

3. “Livergrown”

Again, a no-nonsense descriptive name for a condition. People who died of livergrown died with an enlarged (failing) liver. Doctors could diagnose it through the combination of other symptoms like jaundice and liver-located abdominal pain. It was commonly a result of alcoholism, but could be caused by any number of disorders.   

4. “Chrisomes”

Extremely high infant mortality was a miserable fact of life clear up to the 20th century (and still is in some parts of the world). The Bills distinguish abortive (miscarriages), stillborn, infant, and chrisome deaths, but they all amounted to much the same sad thing. Chrisomes were specifically children who died within the first month of life. The word itself refers to the white cloth a baby wore while it was baptized—a symbol of its innocence. A baptized baby was notable because it was assured a place in the heaven of both Catholic and early Protestant doctrine.  

5. “Rising of the Lights”

Back in the days when no part of a slaughtered animal was wasted, a pig’s lungs were likely to find their way into stew or sausage, just like any other organ. Compared to other organs, the lungs were very “light.” One horrible cough children suffered sounded like they were bringing up a lung, or “raising their lights.” In Scotland, the awful noise was reminiscent of a chicken sick with a barnyard disease called “roup." In the late 18th century, Scotland’s slang won out, and “rising of the lights” became “croup.” 

6. “Timpany”

The condition of having serious swelling or bloating (like a big tight drum) in the digestive tract is still called tympany today, except it is usually used in reference to cows. The sort of swelling that would have proven fatal to human could have been caused by kidney disease, intestinal infections, or even cancerous tumors. 

7. “Tissick”

If you’re a fan of etymology, you'll find a rich history in the word “tissick”, which originated in ancient Greek and persisted through Latin, French, and English for thousands of years only to end up a dead word. It derives from a word meaning “to decay.” Much like the also archaic term consumption, tissick described the wretched physical condition of a person who wasted away from tuberculosis

8. “Meagrome (Megrim)”

If you’re experiencing a migraine, it’s not uncommon for the pain to be located on one side of your head. That’s why the Latin word for it was hemicrania, or “half-head.” The French dropped the “h” sound and softened the “k” into ‘guh’. Any internal head trauma from an aneurysm to a brain tumor would be filed under Megrim, which soon became our familiar enemy, the migraine.

9. “Imposthume”

There seem to be clues lurking in the word imposthume, since it bears so many familiar parts. Posthumous? Imposter? Impose? None of them particularly call to mind what an imposthume was: a swelling or abscess, usually filled with pus or other putrescence. It originates with the Greek apostema, meaning “standing from,” or apart, such as how a swelling of unnatural fluid would be notably distinct from a healthy body. But that connection might be coincidence; the word went through, as the Oxford English Dictionary put it, “unusual corruption.” 

10. “Head mould shot”

Newborns, particularly ones that had a hard struggle down the birth canal, often have oddly shaped heads. This is because the bony plates that make up their skull haven’t fused, or “sutured” together yet. Head mould shot described a condition in which a newborn’s cranial bones were so compressed by delivery (the invention of obstetrical forceps still being 200 years away) that they overlapped (overshot) each other. They then fused in that position, ceasing to grow and causing often fatal brain pressure and convulsions. The condition still exists today, called craniosynostosis, though now it is highly treatable and is rarely caused by difficult births. 

11. “Quinsie”

Quinsy, which evolved from a Latin word meaning “choke,” is still sometimes used in modern England. It describes a complication of tonsillitis where an infection occurs between the tonsil and the throat. A pus-filled abscess grows, requiring antibiotics and sometimes surgery. Unless the abscess was removed, a patient would often suffocate from the blockage. 

12. “Surfeit”

Surfeit means “to overdo it.” In the case of the Bills of Mortality, it is hard to narrow down what sort of excess the writer is referring to. Sometimes, as in the case of King Henry I and his lampreys, it can refer to overeating a food that becomes poisonous if taken in large enough quantities. In veterinary studies it had described a horse which had too much water in its stomach. Though it was likely a rarity, considering the environment in 1664 London, it might have meant a person who died from an excess of food. 

13. “French Pox”

Wherever French troops fought a battle, a flare-up of syphilis always seemed to occur among soldiers on both sides. Thus the English (and many others) gave the disease this ignoble title. At the time, rudimentary treatments for syphilis involved injecting mercury into the afflicted area, but they were not reliable. Untreated syphilis could cause blindness, organ and nerve failure, necrosis of tissue, and death. 

14. “Bloody Flux”

Dysentery was common in crowded places without reliably clean water sources. To “flux” meant to “flow out”—which is what a person’s body tries to do with any threatening bacteria caught in the digestive tract. Bloody flux described a body so ill that its digestive tract was breaking down. Dehydration was usually the cause of death from dysentery. 

15. “Plannet”

“Plannet” is likely a shorthand for “planet-struck.” Today we might describe a person in a state of paralytic awe as “moonstruck,” but the 17th century didn’t limit their diseases to one celestial body. Many medical practitioners believed the planets influenced health and sanity (thus the "luna" in lunatic). A person who was planet-stricken had been suddenly maligned by the forces of particular planets. They would likely present symptoms also associated with aneurisms, strokes, and heart attacks.

New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images
Essential Science
How Are Vaccines Made?
Quality checks on the Salk polio vaccine at Glaxo's virus research laboratory in Buckinghamshire, UK, in January 1956.
Quality checks on the Salk polio vaccine at Glaxo's virus research laboratory in Buckinghamshire, UK, in January 1956.
Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

Vaccines have long been hailed as one of our greatest public health achievements. They can be made to protect us from infections with either viral or bacterial microbes. Measles and smallpox, for example, are viruses; Streptococcus pneumoniae is a bacterium that causes a range of diseases, including pneumonia, ear and sinus infections, and meningitis. Hundreds of millions of illnesses and deaths have been prevented due to vaccines that eradicated smallpox and significantly reduced polio and measles infections. However, some misunderstanding remains regarding how vaccines are made, and why some scary-sounding ingredients [PDF] are included in the manufacturing process.

The production of our vaccines has greatly evolved since the early days, when vaccination was potentially dangerous. Inoculating an individual with ground-up smallpox scabs usually led to a mild infection (called "variolation"), and protected them from acquiring the disease the "regular" way (via the air). But there was always a chance the infection could still be severe. When Edward Jenner introduced the first true vaccination with cowpox, protection from smallpox became safer, but there were still issues: The cowpox material could be contaminated with other germs, and sometimes was transmitted from one vaccinated person to another, leading to the inadvertent spread of blood-borne pathogens. We’ve come far in the last 200 years.

There are different kinds of vaccines, and each requires different processes to move from the laboratory to your physician's office. The key to all of them is production of one or more antigens—the portion of the microbe that triggers a host immune response.


There are several methods to produce antigens. One common technique is to grow a virus in what's called a cell culture. Typically grown in large vats called bioreactors, living cells are inoculated with a virus and placed in a liquid growth medium that contains nutrients—proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates, essential minerals—that help the virus grow in the cells, producing thousands of copies of itself in each infected cell. At this stage the virus is also getting its own dose of protective medicine: antibiotics like neomycin or polymyxin B, which prevent bacterial and fungal contamination that could kill the cells serving as hosts for the virus.

Once a virus completes its life cycle in the host cell, the viruses are purified by separating them from the host cells and growth media, which are discarded. This is often done using several different types of filters; the viruses are small and can pass through holes in the filter that trap larger host cells and cell debris.

This is how "live attenuated vaccines" are created. These vaccines contain viruses that have been modified so that they are no longer harmful to humans. Some of them are grown for many generations in cells that aren't human, such as chicken cells, so that they have mutated to no longer cause harm to humans. Others, like the influenza nasal mist, were grown at low temperatures until they lost the ability to replicate in the warmer temperatures of the lungs. Many of these vaccines you were probably given as a child: measles, mumps, rubella ("German measles"), and chickenpox.

Live attenuated vaccines replicate briefly in the body, triggering a strong—and long-lasting—response from your immune system. Because your immune system kicks into high gear at what it perceives to be a major threat, you need fewer doses of the vaccine for protection against these diseases. And unlike the harmful form of the virus, it is extremely unlikely (because they only replicate at low levels) that these vaccines will cause the host to develop the actual disease, or to spread it to other contacts. One exception is the live polio vaccine, which could spread to others and, extremely rarely, caused polio disease (approximately one case of polio from 3 million doses of the virus). For this reason, the live polio virus was discontinued in the United States in 2000.

Scientists use the same growth technique for what are known as "killed" or "inactivated" vaccines, but they add an extra step: viral death. Inactivated viruses are killed, typically via heat treatment or use of a chemical such as formaldehyde, which modifies the virus's proteins and nucleic acids and renders the virus unable to replicate. Inactivated vaccines include Hepatitis A, the injected polio virus, and the flu shot.

A dead virus can't replicate in your body, obviously. This means that the immune response to inactivated vaccines isn't as robust as it is with live attenuated vaccines; replication by the live viruses alerts many different types of your immune cells of a potential invader, while killed vaccines primarily alert only one part of your immune system (your B cells, which produce antibodies). That's why you need more doses to achieve and maintain immunity.

While live attenuated vaccines were the primary way to make vaccines until the 1960s, concerns about potential safety issues, and the difficulty of making them, mean that few are attempting to develop new live attenuated vaccines today.


Other vaccines aren't made of whole organisms at all, but rather bits and pieces of a microbe. The combination vaccine that protects against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus—all at once—is one example. This vaccine is called the DTaP for children, and Tdap for adults. It contains toxins (the proteins that cause disease) from diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus bacteria that have been inactivated by chemicals. (The toxins are called "toxoids" once inactivated.) This protects the host—a.k.a. you, potentially—from developing clinical diphtheria and tetanus disease, even if you are exposed to the microorganisms. (Some viruses have toxins—Ebola appears to, for example—but they're not the key antigens, so they're not used for our current vaccines.)

As they do when developing live attenuated or inactivated vaccines, scientists who create these bacterial vaccines need some target bacteria to culture. But because the bacteria don't need a host cell to grow, they can be produced in simple nutrient broths by vaccine manufacturers. The toxins are then separated from the rest of the bacteria and growth media and inactivated for use as vaccines.

Similarly, some vaccines contain just a few antigens from a bacterial species. Vaccines for Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae type B, and Neisseria meningitidis all use sugars that are found on the outer part of the bacteria as antigens. These sugars are purified from the bacteria and then bound to another protein to enhance the immune response. The protein helps to recruit T cells in addition to B cells and create a more robust reaction.

Finally, we can also use genetic engineering to produce vaccines. We do this for Hepatitis B, a virus that can cause severe liver disease and liver cancer. The vaccine for it consists of a single antigen: the hepatitis B surface antigen, which is a protein on the outside of the virus. The gene that makes this antigen is inserted into yeast cells; these cells can then be grown in a medium similar to bacteria and without the need for cell culture. The hepatitis B surface antigen is then separated from the yeast and serves as the primary vaccine component.


Once you have the live or killed viruses, or purified antigens, sometimes chemicals need to be added to protect the vaccine or to make it work better. Adjuvants, such as aluminum salts, are a common additive; they help enhance the immune response to some antigens by keeping the antigen in contact with the cells of the immune system for a longer period of time. Vaccines for DTaP/Tdap, meningitis, pneumococcus, and hepatitis B all use aluminum salts as an adjuvant.

Other chemicals may be added as stabilizers, to help keep the vaccine working effectively even in extreme conditions (such as hot temperatures). Stabilizers can include sugars or monosodium glutamate (MSG). Preservatives can be added to prevent microbial growth in the finished product.

For many years, the most common preservative was a compound called thimerosal, which is 50 percent ethylmercury by weight. Ethylmercury doesn't stick around; your body quickly eliminates it via the gut and feces. (This is different from methylmercury, which accumulates in fish and can, at high doses, cause long-lasting damage in humans.) In 2001, thimerosal was removed from the vaccines given in childhood due to consumer concerns, but many studies have demonstrated its safety.

Finally, the vaccine is divided into vials for shipping to physicians, hospitals, public health departments, and some pharmacies. These can be single-dose or multi-dose vials, which can be used for multiple patients as long as they're prepared and stored away from patient treatment areas. Preservatives are important for multi-dose vials: bacteria and fungi are very opportunistic, and multiple uses increase the potential for contamination of the vaccine. This is why thimerosal is still used in some multi-dose influenza vaccines.

Though some of the vaccine ingredients sound worrisome, most of these chemicals are removed during multiple purification steps, and those that remain (such as adjuvants) are necessary for the vaccine's effectiveness, are present in very low levels, and have an excellent track record of safety.


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