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Vail Academy and High School

How Can A Plague Result In Such Positive Outcomes?

Julianna Roper

Senior Exit Project

Eva Peters

15 November 2017
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Julianna Roper

Mrs. Peters

Senior Exit Project

15 November 2017

How Can A Plague Result In Such Positive Outcomes?

25 million dead, millions more suffering, economic and social turmoil, unemployment at

an all time high, and streets covered in foul smell, dead bodies, and swarming pests. This paints a

picture of one of the most devastating pandemics in human history: The Black Death. Most

people are familiar with The Black Death, or The Black Plague; what most people are not

familiar with, is the huge impact it has had on modern society. For example, society has learned

how to prevent an epidemic like this one from ever happening again, and it has used the doctors,

and their methods to create the cure and to invent and enhance medicine today.


The Black Death first arrived in Europe by sea in 1347. Twelve trading ships from Genoese had

docked at the Sicilian port after traveling through the Black Sea. The people who witnessed these

ships and their passengers arrive, were very shocked after seeing most on board dead and the rest

gravely ill. In response to this horrifying sight, the Sicilian authorities sent the ships away, but it

was too late. In fact, “[o]ver the next five years, the mysterious Black Death would kill more

than 20 million people in Europe - almost one-third of the continent’s population” (“Black

Death”). As a result of the drastic population change, the Plague had very negative social and

economic effects on Europe.

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The social effects that the Plague brought were very serious. Most of the continent fell

into, what many called, a depression.

People abandoned their friends and family, fled cities, and shut themselves off

from the world.… Some felt that they should obey the maxim, ‘Eat, drink, and be

merry, for tomorrow you may die.’... Faith in ​religion​ decreased after the Plague,

both because of the death of so many of the clergy and because of the failure of

prayer to prevent sickness and death (Courie)

The behavior of the people rapidly led into an almost instant economic crisis as well. As a result

of the Plague, the air and land became contaminated, which then made it very difficult to grow

food and produce goods to buy and sell. Therefore, the prices of all goods skyrocketed which

resulted in an extreme inflation and there was also an immense problem finding workers because

of the numerous amount of deaths. The lack of available workers caused all employers to

anxiously find anybody that was able to work. The small percentage of the population not sick

and dying were immediately hired and put to work. In order to encourage people to work, there

had to be a drastic rise in wages (Courie). The Black Death was an awful disease that affected

millions of people and caused great suffering throughout all of Europe, not only socially and

economically, but also physically.

The Plague and it’s Symptoms.​ As many people know, this disease was very often spread

through rodents (most commonly known, is the rat) and their fleas. Hungry fleas would often

bite an infected rat in search for food. The fleas would then go and bite human flesh, spreading

the disease. This was a very common way of transmitting the disease, along with coming in

contact with an infected animal. Humans could also transmit the disease to other humans, most
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frequently by coughing. If someone were to cough into the air and release the bacteria, and

someone were to breath in that bacteria, it would get into their system and they too would be

contaminated (“Ecology and Transmissions”).

Many common symptoms of the Black Plague included: fever, headache, chills,

weakness, abdominal pain, shock, bleeding into skin or organs, shortness of breath, chest pain,

cough, and bloody or watery mucous (“Symptoms”). Another common symptom was swollen,

tender, and painful lymph nodes, called buboes. The infected area would appear near to the area

where the flea first bit. One of the most known and seen symptoms of the Plague were the black

spots on people’s skin. The skin turned black when it and other tissues died. It was especially

known to happen to the fingers, toes, and nose (“Symptoms”).

The Doctors Involved. ​The Black Plague continued killing people for many years before anyone

was able to find a cure for it. During the three years that the Black Death occurred, doctors

suggested cures such as: rubbing onions and herbs on the skin, drinking vinegar, and sitting close

to fires (“KS3 History”). These were the only ways of curing the disease until finally, in 1894,

bacteriologists Alexandre Yersin and Kitasato Shibasaburo discovered the bacteria that was

infecting everyone, which was later named ​Yersinia pestis​ after Yersin himself (The Editors).

Alexandre Yersin was born in French, Switzerland. He studied medicine at many universities in

Berlin and Paris (Hawgood). During his research at the universities he was able to discover the

bacteria that was being transmitted from rodent to human by isolating a toxin within the bacteria,

in the form of a liquid. He then injected the liquid into testing rats and observed them. He found

that the animals died very quickly from the Plague as the animals showed the Plague’s symptoms

(The Editors). This bacteria that he injected into the animals was the same bacteria that was later
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named ​Yersinia Pestis​. Then, in the late 1800’s, various other doctors started to understand how

rodents transmitted the disease to humans. Doctors, such as Ogata Masanori and Paul-Louis

Simond, found that fleas that had bitten infected rats would then bite humans which would in

turn, transmit the disease (The Editors). They then began testing this new idea at institutions all

over the world and finally came to a cure: sulfa drugs and antibiotics such as streptomycin (The


The Cure to The Black Death.​ Streptomycin was the number one recommended antibiotic for

curing the Plague. This antibiotic was discovered in 1943 by Selman Waksman, Albert Schatz,

and Elizabeth Bugie (Woodruff). The only reason this medicine was discovered and was known

to work when curing the Black Plague was because of the research the doctors conducted in the

18th century. They discovered that the Plague was a result of a bacteria eating away at the skin

and attacking cells. Streptomycin is specifically designed to attack and kill bacteria. The specific

kind of bacteria that was produced in humans infected with the Plague, was the kind that is

produced by ribosomes, and Streptomycin was made to attack ribosomes and the proteins they

produce. Refer to the diagram on the next page.

Streptomycin is a member of a family of antibiotics that work[s] by interrupting

the function of...ribosomes, the complex molecular machines that create proteins

by linking amino acids together. Ribosomes...have two main parts or ‘subunits.’

The larger subunit does the protein building, guided by a type of [m]RNA...which

binds to it. The small subunit “reads” the mRNA and selects the matching transfer

RNA (tRNA) molecule, which selects and delivers the next amino acid to the

ribosome. This is where streptomycin plays a role. It binds [closely] to the small
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subunit, causing it to severely misread the sequence. This results in the synthesis

of random proteins, which ultimately kills the bacteria. (Mgrdichian)

Streptomycin is an antibiotic that interferes with the code for making proteins which produces

the random proteins that will not do anything, which leads to the death of the bacteria the

ribosome and the protein would have produced, if the proteins were made correctly. This is how

this antibiotic was and is still used to cure the Plague.


The Black Death, the doctors who studied and researched the epidemic, and the medicine that

cured the disease all made a huge impact on modern society, as the ideas, research, and medicine

used to cure the epidemic are still being used today. The Black Death can be looked at as a

learning experience in history. Modern-day doctors and scientists can now use the data collected

from the 14th to the 18th century to create new medicines and cures that ultimately prevent

anything like the Black Death from happening again.

Modern Society.​ The antibiotic used to cure the Plague was not only used for the Black Plague,

but is also used now to cure a modern, infectious, bacterial disease: tuberculosis
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(“Streptomycin”). Tuberculosis is a rare disease that causes infection in the lungs and often

results in coughing, night sweats, weight loss, and fever. “Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by a

bacterium called ​Mycobacterium tuberculosis​. The bacteria usually attack the lungs, but TB

bacteria can attack any part of the body such as the kidney, spine, and brain” (“Tuberculosis

(TB)”). It is very similar to the Plague; just as the Plague is spread by a infectious bacteria, so is

tuberculosis. This is just one example of how the lessons learned from The Black Death are used

in modern society today.

Modern Medicine.​ Streptomycin was the first antibiotic founded that could cure the Black

Plague; however, there have been many more discovered since then. Doctors and scientists today

have used the results of streptomycin to create other antibiotics and discover more cures for more

diseases. One of the most common infections in the modern world in pneumonia. Pneumonia

occurs when one or more of the air sacs in the lungs fill up with bacterial fluid. The cure to this

infection is through the use of an antibiotic called Levofloxacin. Levofloxacin stops the bacteria

by preventing the reproduction and repair of their genetic material: DNA (Ogbru). It then enters

the bacterial cells and inhibits an enzyme within this cell. This enzyme is involved in replacing

and replicating the genetic material (DNA), so when Levofloxacin invades this enzyme, the

enzyme is not able to reproduce anymore bacterial cells, which eventually kills off the bacteria

(Marshall). Similar to how streptomycin interferes with the DNA proteins and their ribosomes

within a bacterial cell, Levofloxacin interferes with a DNA enzyme within a bacterial cell. The

doctor’s research on the Plague’s bacteria eventually lead to various bacteria killing antibiotics

including Levofloxacin. This antibiotic is used to cure a very common infection that a large
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population of the world suffers from, and because of the Black Death, modern-day doctors are

able to provide a cure to many of those who are suffering.

Another example of a great discovery used to fight off bacterial diseases is the use of

fluoride. A simple tooth decay is actually considered a bacterial disease, as it is caused by types

of bacteria, found in dental plaque, that break down dietary sugars and produces acids. These

acids can then dissolve the tooth and create holes and cavities (Vankevich). This is where

fluoride comes in: “[w]hen fluoride becomes chemically incorporated in the tooth, it makes the

[tooth] more resistant to [the bacteria], thus preventing the decay process” (Vankevich). As a

result, fluoride can be found in a lot of toothpastes and mouthwashes. Bacteria fighting

antibiotics have become very common in today’s world because of the Black Plague.

Prevention.​ The Black Death was a worldwide epidemic that caught the world by surprise. One

common question is: “how is the world preventing something like this from happening again?”

There are various ways society keeps epidemics like the Black Death from happening again. One

of the most basic techniques used to prevent death by illness is emergency protocol and training.

Emergency protocols are actions that need to be taken in order to respond quickly and effectively

to any emergency. “Brady Emergency Care”​ ​is a book about all the different types of ways that

one can save another’s life including protocols and training. This book shows that the modern

world knows how to take care of the sick and dying, ranging anywhere from those suffering from

a simple allergy, to those dying of a fatal disease (Grant). The Black Death proved that the world

was in desperate need of people who were trained and ready to help the sick. During the time of

the Plague, those who were lying around the streets dying were not helped by anyone, as no one
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knew how to help them. Emergency protocols are an important step to preventing something like

the Plague from happening again.

Another form of prevention is through the the use of safety precautions. Doctors, dentists,

veterinarians, etc., are required to wear gloves before coming in contact with a human or animal.

This is to ensure not only the safety of the doctor, but the safety of the patient. This hinders any

bacteria from traveling between humans or animals. The use of vaccinations, check ups, and

treatments are also very popular forms of safety precautions and simple prevention. It is strongly

encouraged that both humans and pets get yearly check-ups to make sure they are healthy.

Vaccines are shots that are often given at birth and yearly from then on to prevent specific

bacterial diseases. Dogs and cats are now treated for fleas to ensure they are not carrying any

disease or bacteria that may cause an infectious or fatal disease, like the Black Plague (“Protect

Yourself From the Plague”).


The Black Death is a very well known epidemic. Although many know the history of the Plague,

many do not know the extraordinary impact it has had on modern-day society and medicine. The

Black Death itself and the doctors and scientists who later researched and discovered the

affecting bacteria, impacted and changed the world for the better. Using what they learned from

this event, modern-day doctors and scientists have been able to create cures and antibiotics for

almost any disease. There are now cures for diseases anywhere from a simple infection to a more

serious disease such as pneumonia or malaria.

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Modern-day doctors and scientists now know how to stop a horrendous disease like the

Plague from entering and destroying society. “Mistakes are the portals of discovery” (Joyce).

The only reason modern society is able to prevent the Plague now is because they have learned

from society’s previous mistakes. Similarly, the only reason modern doctors are able to create

cures for various diseases is because they learned from the disaster. The Black Death has always

been seen as a low point in the world’s history: however, there have been many positive

outcomes of this horrific epidemic, such as modern medicine and the prevention of yet another

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Works Cited

“Black Death.” ​​, A&E Television Networks, 2010.

Courie, Leonard W. ​The Black Death and Peasant's Revolt​. New York: Wayland Publishers,

1972; Strayer, Joseph R., ed. ​Dictionary of the Middle Ages​. New York: Charles

Scribner's Sons. Vol. 2. pp. 257-267.

“Ecology and Transmissions.” ​Centers for Disease Control and Prevention​, Centers for Disease

Control and Prevention, 14 Sept. 2015.

Hawgood, BJ. “Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943): Discoverer of the Plague Bacillus, Explorer and

Agronomist.” ​Journal of Medical Biography.​, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 16

Aug. 2008.

Grant, Harvey D. ​Brady Emergency Care​. Fifth ed., Brady Prentice Hall Education, Career &

Technology, 1971. Print.

Joyce, James. “A List of Our Favorite Quotes.” ​Computer Hope​, Computer Hope, 30 June 2017.

“KS3 History - The Black Death - Revision 4.” ​BBC Bitesize​, BBC

Marshall, Helen. “Tavanic (Levofloxacin).” ​Netdoctor​, 27 Oct. 2015.

Mgrdichian, Laura. “Molecular Structure Reveals How the Antibiotic Streptomycin

Works.”​Brookhaven National Laboratory — a Passion for Discovery​, 5 Sept. 2013.

Ogbru, PharmD Omudhome. “Levaquin (Levofloxacin) Antibiotic Side Effects, Uses &

Dosage.” ​MedicineNet​, 22 Sept. 2016.

“Protect Yourself From the Plague.” ​Centers for Disease Control and Prevention​, Centers for

Disease Control and Prevention, 26 Apr. 2017

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“Streptomycin.” ​National Institutes of Health​, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,

16 Oct. 2016.

“Symptoms.” ​Centers for Disease Control and Prevention​, Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention, 14 Sept. 2015.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Plague.” ​Encyclopædia Britannica​, Encyclopædia

Britannica, Inc., 24 Aug. 2017.

“Tuberculosis (TB).” ​Centers for Disease Control and Prevention​, Centers for Disease Control

and Prevention, 20 Mar. 2016.

Vankevich, Paul. “How Does Fluoride Strengthen Teeth and Why Add It to the Public Water

Supply?” ​Tufts Now​, Tufts University, 16 Feb. 2011

Woodruff, H. Boyd. “Selman A. Waksman, Winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize for Physiology or

Medicine.” ​Applied and Environmental Microbiology​, American Society for

Microbiology, Jan. 2014.