Plague and Contagionism in Eighteenth-Century England: The Role of Richard Mead

An epidemic of plague in Marseilles in 1720 and the fear that it would spread to England led to the passing of a new quarantine act. First, however, the government sought medical advice from Dr. Richard Mead (1673-1754), which took the form of A Short Discourse Concerning Pestilential Contagion, and the Methods to Be Used to Prevent It. This tract was a contribution to the contagion concept of disease at a time when it had not yet become part of the medical mainstream as an explanation for certain epidemic diseases. Critical works appeared almost immediately attacking Mead's ideas. The Short Discourse went through nine editions, the last in 1744. In the last two editions there are further elaborations of his earlier views and references to Newton's Optics and the ether theory. Some of Mead's practical recommendations for dealing with the plague, should it enter the country, were relatively new. References to his plague tract appeared in a number of medical and nonmedical works well beyond his lifetime.