It’s not often you get to talk about the plague in polite society. But if you should find yourself in Edinburgh between now and 29 May, might I recommend a visit to the National Library of Scotland? As a writer I’m duty-bound to recommend a visit to any house of books, but in this case, the NLS have a rather interesting (and free) exhibition about contagious diseases!
Plague: A cultural history of contagious diseases in Scotland
The National Library of Scotland’s exhibition takes a whistle stop tour of plague, cholera, smallpox, leprosy, influenza and other contagious diseases that have affected Scotland over the past 7 centuries. In a way, it just proves that no matter what humans think they’ve conquered, invented, or designed, we’re still very much at the mercy of organisms we can’t even see.
The exhibition could have ended up extremely dry, but the designers have created modern cabinets of curiosities for each disease. Open up the crate and peruse the variety of pickled specimens, books, letters, and other ephemera related to each illness. If you’re into the macabre like me then you’ll probably find the diseased flesh more interesting than you should. Still, it’s important to be aware of what infectious threats would still be around, were it not for the intervention of medical science.
There are plenty of details about what the diseases did, and how communities attempted to deal with them. I guarantee you’ll find yourself scanning the symptoms to see if anything sounds familiar! It’s both fascinating and terrifying to read about the rapid spread of each contagion, as well as the available treatments. The exhibition doesn’t just restrict itself to plague, which had begun to die out in 17th century Scotland. While smallpox is no longer with us, syphilis still is, and both leprosy and cholera can still be found in developing countries. And who among us hasn’t had contact with influenza?!
The exhibition also puts the diseases and their effects into a wider context. Other display cases explore the ways in which officials, writers, religious figures, doctors and the press all reacted to the various diseases. Folk medicine makes an appearance, too. While it is interesting to note how the officials saw the epidemics, it’s the primary sources from the sufferers, or their relatives, that make for the most poignant reading.
Plague! ends with a consideration of the zombie, pop culture’s addition to critical engagement with disease. Funnily enough, most of the tips passed around as good sense in a zombie outbreak would also help to guard against the spread of other, more real threats from the world of viruses and bacteria. While epidemics were once believed to be God’s judgement, the advances of science at least give us a fighting chance in the war on disease. That said, doctors initially refused to use the smallpox vaccination in case they deviated from God’s plan – in the current ‘anti-vax’ climate it’s useful to revisit these concerns in an effort to convince parents that vaccination is the way forward.
It pays to be vigilant against contagious threats, and while this exhibition focuses mostly on looking back, there’s a lot of material to bear in mind while we look forward. I for one am exceptionally glad to be living in an era of painkillers, penicillin and keyhole surgery!
Plague: A cultural history of contagious diseases in Scotland is FREE and is on until 29 May 2016.
Visit the National Library of Scotland’s website for opening hours and other details!