Monday, 16 August 2021

Week 33: a plague on Paris

100 years ago this week: Week 33

The 1920s was an era of modernism and progress, but in certain respects, Paris was still a medieval city. The archaic nature of the sanitary conditions in some districts - overlooked most of the time - only became an issue when infectious diseases broke out. Was the plague about to make a comeback in 1921? 

Scratch your itch here.

The Plague in Paris
A few cases have been observed, but all the security measures seem to have been taken.

Sleeping sickness has gone idle; doctors have not 'revealed' any new diseases this season. Paris was getting bored. Suddenly, those old terrifying words have been thrown on the silent and almost deserted city; the plague, typhoid, cholera.


At the beginning of the 1920s, Europe was struck by the circulation - and return - of certain diseases that had not been seen since the middle ages. The first of these - mentioned in the text above - was Encephalitis lethargica, or sleeping sickness. This mysteriously appeared then just as mysteriously disappeared a decade or so later. Any return of the plague though was more worrying.

To avoid panic amongst the public, the plague was referred to only as 'disease n°9' in official documents, but disease n°9 did find several dozen victims in Paris and its surrounding towns at the beginning of the 1920s. Where had it come from? The article in L'Homme Libre suspects a link to Russia, but it seems that plague infected rats had actually hopped aboard coal-carrying barges coming from England.

What was clear is that all cases concerned people in impoverished parts of the city, notably amongst the chiffoniers (ragpickers) who lived in the soon to be demolished 'zone' surrounding Paris. In this particular outbreak, the worst was avoided thanks to the rapid response of health officials. Those affected were removed from their environments, with 'contact cases' isolated in military facilities. Any affected properties were cleaned thoroughly or destroyed if they were completely insalubrious.

As the new decade began it was an important reminder. Diseases can appear and spread if basic sanitary conditions are not assured for all members of society.


C-Marie said...

What a scary happening for the people then. Sanitation is always of the utmost importance. God bless, C-Marie

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