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Malta’s plague epidemic 75 years ago

In 1936 war clouds were gathering over Europe. By mid-July, Spain was in the throes of a civil war. Mussolini and Hitler were about to forge an allegiance from hell and the machinations leading to a world conflict had very much groaned into motion.

The clouds accumulating over Malta, however, were of a different, but no less ominous nature. They were the darkened clouds of bad air or miasma, popularly held to be at the root of all outbreaks of plague.

By Good Friday things were not boding well. In Strada Raffaela, Qormi, members of the Grech family, living in a bakery house, were struck by a deadly disease similar to bubonic plague: suppurating buboes in the femural region and groin, high fever accompanied by rigor, furred tongue, vomiting and horrend-ous pain in addition to hallucinations.

The grandfather, 73, his old body wracked after a three-day ordeal fighting the deadly disease, passed away on the morning of April 8. His 42-year-old son died five days later but his 20-year-old grandson courageously kept battling on for dear life.

Delirious, feverish, and with an impossibly high pulse rate, he was taken to the Lazzaretto (hospital for contagious diseases) on Manoel Island. He miraculously survived.

However, within a few days, neighbours of the Grech family started to be taken ill. The same vicious cycle cutting down the Grechs made its deadly round in other houses, leaving a trail of misery and sorrow in its wake.

In Qormi, during those 13 black months of plague, eight persons showed clear signs of contagion. Half of them died.

It was rumoured that the plague reached Malta from infected bales of hay and straw that had been imported from Tunisia.

The health authorities, for all their goodwill and precautionary measures, failed to contain the disease. The village of Żebbuġ, only two miles away, was next in line. Eleven people were infected and three, including a seven-year-old girl, died.

The pestilence eventually spread to Rabat, Mtaħleb, Marsa, Attard, Mosta and possibly Gozo, infecting at least 26 people and killing 12.

Corpses of plague victims were taken to the mortuary at Manoel Island where autopsies were carried out to determine the cause of death.

All those showing any suspicious symptoms were quickly quarantined at the Lazzaretto. Their next of kin were likewise isolated, sometimes with the added humiliation of having their house disinfected and sealed off, and having all stored refuse (a very common practice in pre-war Malta) burned on the spot.

Dairy animals grazing in infected areas were similarly removed to the Lazzaretto in a veterinary ambulance.

By the end of 1936 the causes of plague infection had been pretty well identified and studied. Whereas for centuries, in times of contagion, people were gripped by ignorance and superstition, plague bouts in the 20th century should have been more rationally dealt with and contained.

It was known, and scientifically proved by then, that the root of the disease is a lethal pathogen, then called Pasteurella pestis, discovered by Alexandre Yersin, a young Swiss scientist, towards the end of the 19th century. Several species of rodents are this bacterium’s favourite host but transmission is quick and easy through the vector of escaping fleas.

Important research in this context was carried out by Sir Themistocles Zammit who, along with Major W. Broughton Alcock, RAMC, had studied some 1,500 rats over a period of three months and found 15 to be plague-infected.

These researchers had also found out that in Malta the main culprit was the jet black mouse – Mus rattus, quite a recent newcomer to Maltese shores, the proliferation of which was ousting the more resistant local brown/grey sewer rat variety – Mus norwegicus.

The discovery of the deadly germ should have stopped short all fancy notions and mysteries about the plague and its contagion; but it hardly did. Old wives’ tales could not be so easily wiped out.

Plague-inspired ex voto paintings found in many churches around Malta and Gozo, moreover, give tangible form to many of these unfounded beliefs.

If for centuries people firmly held on to the idea that the disease was caused and spread by ‘corrupt air’ they would have certainly found, upon contemplating some altarpiece or other, visual cues confirming this belief.

And if for centuries popular belief was that any plague epidemic was divine punishment of sinful behaviour, people, even in the 1930s, would have found myriad examples of a widespread disintegrating morality.

During the 1936 plague, remedies verged from temporal to spiritual and from makeshift to scientific.

In previous centuries, during plague epidemics, people had by and large resorted to the simplest and most effective prophylactic measure popularly known as the “pill of the three adverbs” – mox, longe, tarde – flee immediately (cede mox), stay far away (recede longe), and be late in returning (redi tarde). They knew, from experience, that all costly ointments, pills and poultices concocted by doctors and self-proclaimed healers invariably led to the grave.

In 1936 the Public Health Department did not isolate whole villages or stage a mass exodus from infected areas. Instead, it concentrated its efforts on education, cleaning, disinfection, localised evacuation and isolation of patients and their immediate contacts, while keeping neighbours and relatives under close surveillance.

A new measure in combating the plague was to use Rediffusion (cable radio) to enable Prof. A.V. Bernard, director of Public Health, to explain the circumstances of the plague and what precautions should be taken. Such broadcasts were advertised in the newspapers.

People were understandably afraid of isolation, attempting the impossible so as not to end up in the dreaded Lazzaretto. Some went so far as to ask (or bribe) doctors not to report their sick loved ones. During late September, two doctors were accused (one of whom was eventually found guilty) of failing to report two plague-infected patients in Rabat.

Others, upon finding dead mice on their premises, quietly destroyed them without reporting anything to the authorities.

The population, however, perhaps disappointed by the government’s failure to halt the epidemic, turned to spiritual, time-tested, remedies.

By mid-August people were urged to pray to St Roque, who is invoked by those afflicted by the plague. For sure, there is a whole legion of heavenly protectors whose intervention is invoked against contagious diseases, including St Charles Borromeo, St Rosalia of Palermo, St Sebastian and the Virgin Mary, but St Roque is the most popular.

According to his colourful story, recounted in the Legenda Aurea, a medieval bestseller about the lives of saints – and other later accounts, such as Francesco Diedo’s Vita Sancti Rochi, St Roque was a mendicant pilgrim from Montpellier whose presence, time and again, had liberated whole villages from the plague.

When he fell victim to the disease in Piacenza, he withdrew to the forest where he was cured thanks to a dog which daily brought him food and licked his wounds.

On the feast of St Roque, August 16, which in 1936 fell on a Sunday, people were asked to attend a special evening Mass held at the church dedicated to the saint in Valletta.

A journalist from the local Italian-language newspaper Malta, announcing the event, rightly maintained that if for centuries the Maltese had prayed to this saint to deliver them from the plague, there was nothing wrong in seeking his help and intercession again.

The poet and dermatologist Rużar Briffa (1906-1963), would have certainly agreed. Then still only 30, as an assistant medical officer, he had worked “with great kindness, skill and devotion” among the patients at the Lazzaretto. He also held St Roque in special veneration and urged his patients to pray to him for deliverance from the pestilence.

Under the old loggia at Piazza Regina (Republic Square) in Valletta, there is a ornate Baroque niche with the image of this saint. The niche dates back to the much more devastating plague of 1676 and bears the arms, emblazoned with the coat-of-arms of the Aragonese Grand Master Ramon Perellos.

Rużar Briffa, who worked in a pharmacy nearby, was especially dedicated to this niche. For years he promoted its upkeep ensuring that, at least, a candle was lit daily. The devotion and interest he had managed to arouse somehow survived him, but in time the niche reverted to its dismal shabbiness.

At some point, the St Roque painting was taken for safekeeping by the Museums Department (now Heritage Malta), where it still remains. Its deteriorated condition makes it difficult to properly date or attribute.

However, it is in keeping with the iconography of the saint; the exposed wound or bubo on the inner thigh of the saint, the pilgrim’s staff, the cocked hat, and the friendly dog. In the background, the threatening clouds of ‘corrupt air’ are visibly gathering.

Translated, the rather cryptic, epigrammatic Latin inscription, framed by two winged cherubs in the niche’s lower section, reads: ‘(D)eo (O)ptimo (M)aximo. To God, the Best and the Greatest. May the disease stay away from the doorway of him who lives here; let the traveller admire how this hallowed place banishes it. AD 1676.’

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