As we await the murderous crest of the COVID-19 wave, most of us are anxious about what will happen to us, our families, our way of life. There is a feeling of impending doom. I was reminded that about 3 years ago, following Google Maps in London I was guided to a side street (just off Fish Street) and there was this giant gold tipped monument that I knew nothing about. At the base of the monument was a piece of art depicting a woman asleep or dying that intrigued me. I photographed the monument and the art at the base. Researching a book on sleep in art, I did some research and I soon learned that the monument was erected to give hope over 300 years ago to a nation battered by calamity.
Pandemics and catastrophes (natural, political, biological) have always been with us. As the corona virus spreads, we are often reminded about the Spanish Flu, the influenza pandemic that lasted from January 1918 to December 1920. This was the first of the two pandemics caused by the influenza H1N1 virus: the second was the swine flu in 2009. The Spanish flu infected half a billion people, about a quarter of the world’s population. Estimates of deaths ranged from about 20 to 100 million people. After the pandemics ended, life went back to normal.
Of course, these were not the first infectious disasters that struck the world. There were several pandemics caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium most often transmitted by the bites of fleas from infected rats. (1) There have been at least three pandemics caused by this organism. The first appeared in the 6th century and killed about half the population of Europe. the Second Pandemic, called The Black Death began in 1347 and killed about 30 percent of the population of Europe. Over three to four centuries the epidemic reappeared about every decade.
The last major event of the second pandemic was The Great Plague which surfaced in England in 1665 and killed about 100,000 people – one out of every four living in London. The following year the Great Fire destroyed the center of London. The fire helped kill off some of the rats and fleas that carried the plague bacteria, thus probably ending the pandemic. It is ironic that one disaster ended another. After suffering two catastrophes, the city of London, virtually destroyed, needed to be reborn.
Figure 2 Relief on Monument to the Great Fire of London. 1677. Caius Gabriel Gibber. Photo courtesy Meir Kryger
Parliament passed the Rebuilding Act, shortly after the fire, which changed the building code so that dwellings had to be constructed of stone or brick and measures were introduced to prevent overcrowding. The Act also authorized the building of a monument “the better to preserve the memory of this dreadful visitation”. King Charles II (1630-1685) commissioned Sir Christopher Wren, the renowned architect (of St. Paul’s Cathedral) and scientist to design a monument (completed in 1677) to commemorate the Great Fire and London’s rebirth (2). The sculpture at the bottom of The Monument by Caius Gabriel Gibber shows the rebirth. The woman on the lower left represents a dead or sleeping London, destroyed by the fire (there are flames above her head). The sleeping or dead London is about to be awakened. Above her head is a helmeted weary male, the Greek god, Hermes (Mercury to the Romans) carrying a magic wand a caduceus, a symbol of medicine. Hermes was the messenger of the gods who was the “mediator between the realm of the dead and the kingdom of the living”. (3) This magic wand was believed to awaken people from sleep. The hand in the wand contains an eye. This is a symbol in several religions signifying protection. Hermes is awakening and protecting London. Hermes’ wand points upward to goddesses in the sky who represent Peace (carrying a palm) and Plenty (carrying a cornucopia of food). On the right of the relief, hand on hip, is the curly haired King Charles II. Resurrection/awakening from death/sleep is a common theme in art. (4) This is not surprising since even into the nineteenth century sleep was thought of as reversible death. This monument, when built was the tallest structure in England and gave hope to a city and a nation that had been ravaged and destroyed by disease and fire.
During and after every disaster, human hope, resilience, ingenuity and love of each other prevails. People alive today have survived the Holocaust, 9/11, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornados, polio, AIDS and influenza. As I write this, I and most of the doctors in my medical school are working from home using telemedicine and continue to treat patients the best they can. Others are preparing and collecting resources to treat the patients who will need help. Some are working to find treatments that may work. We will get through the COVID-19 Pandemic, as humanity has weathered others. We will return to normality. It may be different, but we will celebrate births and birthdays, we will attend gatherings at homes and houses of worship and sporting events, we will shop and travel, eat in restaurants and hug each other. We will celebrate life.
- Morelli G, Song Y, Mazzoni CJ, et al. Yersinia pestis genome sequencing identifies patterns of global phylogenetic diversity. Nat Genet. 2010;42(12):1140–1143. doi:10.1038/ng.705
- About Sir Christopher Wren
- Shampo MA, Kyle RA. Medical mythology: Hermes (Mercury). Mayo Clin Proc. 1992;67(8):800. doi:10.1016/s0025-6196(12)60806-4
- Sleep in Art. Kryger M. Independently published. Hamden, CT. 2019