At some point in the future, London will be struck by a dread disease that will lay waste to swathes of society.
It’s happened before, and will happen again, the only question is when, and how deadly will the modern plague be?
The Museum of London has put on a display looking at London’s past pandemics, and how both the medical profession dealt with the medical impacts, and how society responded to the social impact of so many deaths.
We know of the big ones, the Black Death that killed around a third of Londoners, but there have been other plagues which we often don’t think of in such terms, even though their impact was considerable — smallpox, cholera, influenza, and most recently HIV, which is thought to have killed around 40,000 Londoners in the past few decades, making it the second deadliest plague to have hit London after the Black Death.
As a display, it’s a mix of information about pandemics in the past, and items relevant to the illnesses, from records of deaths to items associated with individuals.
In the 18th century, Smallpox killed something around 8-20% of London’s population. The so-called Russian Flu killed around 1 million people across Europe in 1889-93, including here in London, the second in line to the British Throne just before his wedding.
His death changed the line of succession to the Throne.
As we mark the end of WW1 with solemn ceremonies, we often overlook the deaths of an estimated 50 million people worldwide from the “Spanish Flu”. In London, some 18,000 people died.
The name Spanish Flu is an unfortunate byproduct of wartime censorship, which in many countries prevented the full scale of the pandemic being reported, except in neutral Spain — leading to the impression that it had originated there.
It probably originated in the USA and took hold in France.
Yet, for all the advances in medical treatment, it’s a sobering reminder that in recent years, some 40,000 Londoners died from HIV before treatments were able to arrest the impact of the disease.
It’s still not cured — just lying dormant in those who have the medications to hold it at bay.
For all our cleverness, hundreds die each year of the ordinary flu, these hidden killers that stalk our land.
And one day, Disease X will emerge, and the medical profession will strive to contain the spread of the disease. Maybe, as some have speculated, military rule will need to be imposed, people forced to change their behaviour, hiding away behind locked doors and avoiding public transport.
Disease X is an unknown killer waiting to strike.
One day it will.
This exhibition is a warning from history.
The exhibition, Disease X is open at the Museum of London until 1st February. It’s free to visit.