In spring 1665 London was worried. It was apparent that plague had taken hold of the city. No-one knew at the start just how disastrous it would be; the epidemic killed somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 people in a city with an estimated population at that time of 460,000.
On 13 May 1665 the Privy Council of King Charles II asked for help in dealing with the growing outbreak:
we do hereby pray and require you the President and Society of the Colledge of Physicians of the City of London, to inspect the former Rules given by the Physicians of former times, and imprinted for the publick benefit ; And that you take care to review the said former Book touching Medicines against the Infection, and to adde unto, and alter the same, as you shall find the present times and occasions to require.
The college of physicians (an earlier name for the RCP) had published advice on managing and treating the plague during earlier occurrences in the 1580s, in 1630 and in 1636.
The RCP annals record that in May 1665 the college officers met several times to work on the Privy Council’s request. The result was a ‘little book’ published under a grand title: Certaine necessary directions, as well for the cure of the plague, as for preventing the infection: with many easie medicines of small charge, very profitable to his Majesties subjects. The college sent the 44-page pamphlet to the printers on 25 May: less than 2 weeks after the initial request.
The book includes advice about medical provision in the city, the movement of goods and people, how to identify the disease, how to clean houses and clothing, and how to perfume the air. It ends with a selection of recipes for medicines to be used internally or and externally. This book and others from 1665 are included in a new display which we will install next week.
The physicians stated that:
We have added such Remedies , as either upon our own Experience, or upon the testimony of Authors of the best Credit, and most versed in the Cure of the Plague, have proved successful, and such as might be easiest understood, procured and prepared, most of them at little charge, for the Poor.
Other recipes are for concoctions to be drunk, for poultices to apply to the skin, or for pastes like this electuary ‘for women with child, children, and such as cannot take bitter things’:
Take Conserve of Red-Roses, Conserve of Wood-Sorrel, of each two ounces, Conserves of Borage, of Sage-flowers, of each six drams, Bole-Armoniack, shavings of Harts-horn, Sorrel-seeds, of each two drams, yellow or white Saunders half a dram, Saffron one scruple, Syrupe of Wood-Sorrel, enough to make it a moist Electuary; mix them well, take so much as a Chestnut at a time, once or twice a day, as you shall find cause.
The 1665 Great Plague was the last plague epidemic to reach London. The disease came as close as the French port of Marseille in 1720, but a system of quarantine and other measures prevented the further spread.
Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian