Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

European Malaria Epidemic of 1678-82

The Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence describes some people as being “exhausted to death with recurring episodes of malaria.” I was like, I hear that.

Although as an American, I generally think first of plagues as being spread from invading Europeans to the people of the Americas, Africa and Asia and the Caribbean have gotten their licks in, sending malaria to the Europeans.

Pro tip for plagues: be the richest and most powerful person in your country. King Charles II of England got malaria, and then got some Peruvian bark powder from one Robert Talbor. The king was cured! Talbor, a college dropout, cleverly combined his Secret Cure with some opium and some wine.

That would help me get it down.

The College of Royal Physicians was furious. Not much they could do about it. Sometimes a college dropout knows more than a “doctor” who relies on bleedings.

Robert Talbor moved up to the east side! And now it’s Sir Robert Talbor to you.

King Charles II, who had 99 problems, most of which involved religious conflicts, and only one of which was malaria.

If you were foolish enough to not be rich or powerful, malaria might give you a stroke or pneumonia. Or your kidney, liver, or spleen might explode, or your blood sugar can fall so low that you die. As someone whose appendix exploded, I will suggest that an organ exploding is unpleasant.

Our friend the Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence notes that “burials for death by malaria far exceeded the number of baptisms.”

So Louis XIV of France, his son happened to get malaria. Louis XIV was Charles II’s cousin. Charles sent Tablor right over the channel. (See? Being rich and powerful is so useful.).

After his son recovered, Louis XIV convinced Talbor to give up the Secret Cure– well, not give it up until Talbor had milked every last pence from his knowledge. The secret could be made public when Talbor died.

Louis XIV’s son, the dauphin. Louis described his son as “indolent, fatuous, and dull, only the saving grace of his bourgeois morals kept him from outraging the pious people about him. Like his father he enjoyed the hunt, but that was about the only way in which this disappointing son resembled his father.” The dauphin died before his father, so he never became king. But at least he didn’t die of malaria! He died of smallpox.

After taking the French king’s money, Talbor bought up all the ingredients for his Secret Cure he could get his grubby little hands on.

And then, happily for everyone who would get malaria, he died at the age of 39.

The Secret Cure was revealed! All his life, Tablor insisted that HIS cure was completely different from the cure offered by Jesuits of the day. The Jesuit cure was dangerous, he wailed. Don’t take chances!

The Jesuit cure was Peruvian bark powder.

Here is Talbor’s book. I was all over the internet looking for an image of his grave, or his face, without success.

Some final fun facts: Andrew Marvell, who wrote a famous poem in the genre of “Let’s Get It On.” It reads, in part:

at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Thy beauty shall no more be found;

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song; then worms shall try

That long-preserved virginity,

And your quaint honour turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust;

The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace.

I remember my senior English teacher reading this poem with us, and opening our eyes to the extreme creepiness of worms getting it on with your corpse if you don’t get it on with the poet. Good times.

Marvell had malaria, and died, but scholars suggest that he might have died of an opiate overdose, not malaria itself. Marvell was very Protestant, and the cure, first presented by the Jesuits (and then by Talbor) was perhaps too Catholic for Marvell to handle.

And that’s what you get for being suspicious and intolerant.

I mean, not really, but let’s wrap up with an oversimplified tidbit.

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