It was in 1656 that a plague hit Naples. A pandemic was spreading across Italy. Towns and cities were put into lock down, travel was prohibited except for essential needs, people were scared of catching it as word came that many were dying from it across the continent-sound familiar?
In his college rooms the Jesuit scholar and priest Athanasius Kircher decided to look into what could cause a plague and how it could spread so fast. Kircher had created an apparatus to inspect, well just about everything. He was already an expert with glass, optics and lens and he had been experimenting with different styles and sizes. Kircher had constructed a mechanism that could hold a smaller but still powerful lens enabling him to view tiny things close up. He named this device a smicroscopus and declared that it could magnify objects a thousand times.
Kircher writes about this in his book ‘Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae’, ‘the great art of light and shadow’. He gives a description of the experiments he made with his smicroscopus, which included looking at soil that he put in water and meat that he had left out over night and other such like. He was surprised to find that all these experiments had an intriguing same result-minute worms.
Whilst looking through the smicroscopus he could see teeny weeny worms moving about in all the materials, in the soil in the water, in the meat left out overnight etc. These worms were too small to see with the naked eye and so he named them the invisible little worms.
Kircher then turned his smicroscopus to plague victims, looking at their blood. “The putrid blood of those affected by fevers has fully convinced me. I have found it, an hour or so after letting, so crowded with worms as to well nigh dumbfound me.” His conclusion was that the plague was a living thing perhaps transferred by hitching a ride on these worms.
He reports about this in his writings on the deadly plague in ‘Scrutinium Physico-Medicum Contagiosae Luis, Quae Pestis Dicitur”, ‘A Physico-Medical Examination of the Contagious Pestilence Called the Plague, or Examination of the Plague.’ He wrote “It is “generally known that worms grow from foul corpses. But since the use of that remarkable discovery, the smicroscopus, or the so-called magnifying glass, it has been shown that everything putrid is filled with countless masses of small worms, which could not be seen with the naked eye and without lenses.”
He went on to write that these “propagators of the plague” are “so small, so light, so subtle, that they elude any grasp of perception and can only be seen under the most powerful microscope.” And adds that these tiny germs escape plague victims because they “are easily forced out through all the passages and pores”. He then warns that they “are moved by even the faintest breath of air, just like so many dust particles in the sun.”
There were various theories back in the 1650s as to how the plague began, Kircher’s theory was that it came from dead meat that had putrefied. And what was that dead meat that was infected? It was the animal meat that had been slaughtered for consumption by humans, animal meat that had somehow become infested with the plague virus.
And so, just like in today’s pandemic, Kircher took to warning people to social distance themselves, wear gloves and masks but alas no sanitizer was available in those days.