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David Nightingale: Plagues, Bacteria & Viruses

Hospital in Vienna during the plague 1679. Contemporary copperplate engraving.
Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons
Hospital in Vienna during the plague 1679. Contemporary copperplate engraving.

Let’s look at a few examples of the world’s previous plagues, some caused by bacteria, some by viruses. My background is only in physics, so anything I say here must come from experts, and my only aim is to understand. 

The 1918-20 Spanish flu (which we now know was due to the H1N1 virus) is estimated to have killed 20-100 million people worldwide. It came in 3 waves, with the 2nd wave considerably more deadly than the first. It returned in 2009, this time being referred to as swine flu, which both pigs and farmers could get.

A century earlier, the cholera outbreak of ~1817-1824 (from a bacterium found in contaminated water and sewage) began in India. Cholera (from the Latin word meaning ‘bile’) causes extreme diarrhea, and cholera has come and gone many times in different countries, killing millions. It exists in Yemen even today. Cleanliness is key.

The Great Plague of London, ~1664-1666, which was from another bacterium, left 1 in 5 Londoners dead. History books also called it the Bubonic plague, from the ‘buboes’ (swollen protrusions near the lymph glands) on the skin. The Black Death of the 1300s wiping out half of Europe, as well as the plague of Justinian around the year 541, were all thought to be from that Bubonic bacterium.

A bacterium – and let’s stick to the English language (there’s no such thing as ‘one bacteria’) – is much bigger than a virus [ref.3], and it can move, eat and reproduce (usually by dividing into two).

Contrastingly, a virus is not alive, and is just a small stringy, or (as with Covid 19) crown-shaped, molecule. It can only multiply if it gets absorbed into a living cell. So in a sense, it’s our own cells at fault here – for absorbing them.

In 1894, a remarkable discovery was made by 2 scientists, whose names are famous in the bio-sciences. They are: Swiss-born Dr. Alexandre Yersin, working in France’s Pasteur Institute as well as in Hong Kong, and Japanese microbiologist Dr. Kitasato Shibasaburo, also working in Hong-Kong. They each observed tiny stick-shaped or rod-shaped objects in the blood of Bubonic victims, as well as in rats! These bacilli (Latin, bacillus “stick”) or bacteria were the pestilential culprits behind so much of mankind’s past miseries. After these 1894 discoveries all the invocations to gods of the previous centuries became moot – it was these bacteria. That bubonic bacterium is now called “Y-Pestis”, or “Yersin-Pestis”, and is behind three types of plague, affecting blood, lungs, or lymph nodes. So let’s remember: B for Big, B for Bacterium – as in salmonella, strep, TB, Lyme disease.

Now let’s forget bacteria and look at today’s misery: viruses.  A little virus, with its envelope of lipid (fat), needs an electron-microscope to be seen decently. Rabies, flu, smallpox, polio, Ebola, HIV, SARS, MERS, mumps, measles – are all viral.

The CDC [ref.1]  as well as the NIH [ref.2] tell us that this corona virus can remain on stainless steel or plastic for up to 3 days, after which it is no longer ‘viable’ – which I try to understand as meaning still not to be toyed with; because if we touch them and they get carried to nose, mouth or eyes, our cells, knowing no better, may absorb them, just as they might absorb a molecule of food or oxygen that bumped into them. A cell knows no better, and after absorbing the virus, the virus hijacks the cell, and begins to multiply, fast, bringing into action our innate immune systems – which may or may not be up to it.

But time is up. I began this essay looking at plagues and their causes, bacterial or viral. Bacteria and viruses are thought to have existed on earth for millions of years, affecting plants as well as mammals. These plagues are worse now, because we are all clustered together, whereas 12,000 years ago we were basically agrarian.           


1.  “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-Cov-2 as compared with SARS-Cov-1”, New England Journal of Medicine; Letter, 3/17/2020, NEJM.

2.  “New Coronavirus stable for Hours on Surfaces”; www.NIH.gov (3/17/2020).3.

3.  There is a really large bacterium discovered in 1999 off the coast of Namibia called the Thiomargarita bacterium. It is not found in margaritas, but in mud, and it is so big it can JUST be seen with a regular microscope.

4.  https://elemental.medium/this-is-how-your-immune-system-reacts-to-corona-virus-cbf5271e530eDr Mandeep Mehra, a professor at Harvard Medical School, is quoted in this interesting article by Dana Smith, a senior writer at Elemental @ Medium.

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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