Why the theory of airborne spread gives a better explanation of the

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Whythe theory of airborne spread gives a better explanation of the causeof the Black Death.

BlackDeath ranks among the most devastating plagues in world’s history. It is estimated that the plague claimed the lives of about between 75million and 200 million people in parts of Asia and Europe, which wasapproximately 60 % of the population of Europe (Paoli 1). The wordblack was used to describe the plague in a metaphoric sense ofsomething dreadful. The plague occurred from 1346 to 1353 causingproportional mortality in Europe (Benedictow 1-2). It is believedthat the Black Death began in Central Asia before spreading to Crimeaand other parts of Europe along the Silk Road. This paper willdescribe three theories (including the bubonic plague theory,multiple plagues, and the theory of airborne spread) that try toexplain the cause of the Black Death.

Bubonicplague theory holds that the Black Death was caused Yersiniapestis,which was transmitted to human beings via flea bites. The mid guts ofthe fleas were obstructed following the rapid replication of Y.pestis,which occurred within a few days of feeding on the body fluids of aninfected organism (Drancourt234). Blockage of the gut resulted in starvation followed byaggressive feeding, which was characterized by attempts by the fleasto regurgitate in order to clear their guts. This resulted in therelease of large numbers of the infectious Y.pestisat the feeding site. This theory attributes the subsequent decline inthe death rate to the succession of the flea bearing organisms (BlackRat) with a different species (Brown Rat) (Appleby161). The brown rat, which was later introduced to Europe by trade,was less prone to transmit pathogen bearing fleas. This resulted in adecline in death rate by the year 1353, which marked the end of theBlack Plague (Horrox7).

Thesecond theory attempting to explain the cause of the Black Death is acombination of pandemics including anthrax. This theory was advancedby a historian Norman Cantor, who suggested that the Black Deathmight have been caused by a combination of plagues, but mostly theanthrax or cattle murrain (Bravata271). Cantor gave three sources of evidence to support his theory,which include the discovery of spores of anthrax in the pit of theplague in Scotland, documented symptoms of the victims, and the factthat people used to sell meat of dead livestock shortly before theonset of the plague. The type of anthrax infection described byCantor shows up in the form of boil-like lesion on the skin, butlater breaks up to form ulcers that have a black spot at the center.This resembles the symptoms observed in the majority of the plaguevictims.

Thetheory of airborne spread was put forward by a group of scientists inLondon who investigated the remains of human bodies to support theidea that only an airborne plague could kill such a large number ofpeople within such a short period. This group of researchers did theinvestigation at the Public Health England and suggested that aplague must first affect the lungs for it to spread at a high rate(Thorpe1). The infected persons spread the disease through sneezes andcoughs. This suggests that it is more likely that the plague waspneumonia and not a bubonic pandemic. In addition, this theoryopposes the common notion that the plague was spread by flea to humanand supports the idea that the infection was transmitted from humanto human. Therefore, the Black Death was caused by an airborneinfection.

Thetheory of airborne spread gives a more reasonable explanation of thecause of the Black Dead compared to other theories. This is becausethe theory of airborne takes account of the speed at which the plaguespread and the larger number of people affected. For example, it hasbeen recorded that the Black Death plague spread at a speed of 30miles for every three days, which could only be explained using theairborne transmission (Paoli 1). Comparatively, bubonic plaguesspread at a speed of 100 yards per year. Moreover, the plague had along incubation period of between 2-21 days, which resembled anEbola-like virus (Scott3).The long-incubation period gives the reason for rapid the largergeographical coverage of the plague because infected persons couldtravel for long distance while infecting others.

Inconclusion, the Black Death is one of the most deadly plagues in theworld history because it claimed about a third of the Europeanpopulation. The two distinguishing features of the plague include itscapacity to spread at a high rate and a wider geographical coverage.The significance of the Black Death in the world history hasattracted many researchers who have put forward various theories inan attempt to explain the cause of the plague. Some of the majortheories include bubonic plague theory, multiple plagues, and thetheory of airborne spread. However, the airborne theory of spreadgives a more realistic explanation of the cause of the plague becauseit takes account of the high rate of transmission as well asgeographical coverage.


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Benedictow,O. “The Back Death, 1346-1353: The complete history”. PopulationDevelopment Review33.3 (2007): 616-627.

Bravata,M., Liu, H., Olshen, R. and Owens, D. Systematic review: a century ofinhalational anthrax cases from 1900 to 2005. Annalsof Internal Medicine144.4 (2006): 270–80.

Drancourt,M., Houhamdi, L. and Raoult, D. &quotYersinia pestis as a telluric,human ectoparasite-borne organism&quot. TheLancet Infectious Diseases6.4(2001): 234–41.

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Thorpe,V. Black Death skeletons reveals pitiful life of 14 th centuryLondoners. TheGuardian.March 29. 2014. Web. August 2.