Life in a pandemic: What would Scott have done?

27th Mar 2020

As we all get used to looking at the outside world through our windows, our Collections and Interpretation Manager, Kirsty Archer-Thompson considers whether Sir Walter Scott would have been self-isolating or social distancing if Covid-19 had come to call two hundred years ago...

In the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are left in no doubt who in our society is most vulnerable to infection and subsequent complications. And, when you look at the underlying health conditions or medical history of patients who fall into this category, irresistibly I started to consider the Scott family and what their situations might have been in a comparable incident. Would they have been self-isolating? And what was their personal experience of epidemics?

Health in the 18th century

It might be helpful to put the medical situation of the time into some sort of context. The explosion of seafaring activity in the 18th century opened up a plethora of new trade routes, but some exchanges were unintended and unsavoury. Trading activities enabled or accelerated a network of disease transmission across continents and ethnic groups, whether simply through the movement of people, cramped and squalid conditions aboard vessels, or through unintentionally breeding mosquito populations inside ship water casks! Scrofula was transported to Oceania, smallpox to the Americas and the West Indies, and Pacific island communities were devastated by a string of infectious diseases courtesy of explorers and empire builders. As a boy, Scott was fascinated by travel and exploration. He listened intently to reports of the latest military activity in the Americas as the American Revolutionary War raged on. What the little boy, himself a victim of childhood disease, probably did not appreciate at the time was that 90% of George Washington’s casualties had been carried off by epidemics of typhoid fever, dysentery and smallpox and not by military action.

Health in Georgian Britain

In Georgian Britain, there was no guarantee of safety. Influenza epidemics waxed and waned depending on virulence and climate. Whilst Scott was experimenting with his first German translations in the 1790s, scarlet fever raged in parts of Germany. Napoleon’s forces endured several outbreaks of the bubonic plague whilst on campaign. And, while smallpox had wreaked havoc in the Americas in the 1770s and 1780s, an outbreak of the disease in Britain in the 1790s killed 3,500 citizens.

This prompted Edward Jenner to trial his new vaccine for the disease, perhaps one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of medicine. Despite this, Jenner’s vaccine did not become widely available during Scott’s lifetime and Britain saw further outbreaks of smallpox in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in 1816 and in 1825. Both of these occurrences were linked with economic depression and the effects were felt most keenly by the poorest in society who were not able to access the vaccine, a fate avoided by Walter Scott’s family.

Health of Scott’s family

In 1815, Scott writes:

Our eldest boy little Walter…has had the small pox or something very like it and thereby made himself the town talk for he was in infancy both vaccinated & inoculated. He is now got them very well over but the alarm prevented me writing this letter. The circumstance of the small pox (if such the disease be) reviving like one of Ariostos enchanted champions after it was supposed fairly slain is a little startling. But as vaccinating was then only new it is possible the Boy may not have [had] the right kind & that the subsequent inoculation may not have taken effect which sometimes happens or the disorder may have been only a violent chicken pox and not the real variol[o]us eruption.

Scott’s private correspondence is full of detail like this about the ailments, symptoms and treatments administered to family members. In the winter of 1811-12, just months before the family ‘flitting’ to Abbotsford, he fears the worst as measles rips through his children’s nursery, fortunately claiming no victims. Confessing that he had lost siblings to the disease, his sense of relief is palpable.

If you know something of Scott’s life, you’ll probably be aware that he suffered a series of increasingly debilitating strokes. What you may not be aware of was that this seems to have been a genetic affliction. His father was afflicted with a ‘paralytic disorder’ and his mother, who lived to the impressive age of 81, suffered symptoms not dissimilar:

“My mother…had a paralytic stroke which has proved so fatal to the powers of speech and motion that life is neither expected nor to be desired though she still exists.”

For Scott in the final month of 1830, the worrying parallels between his own worsening symptoms and those of his parents were stark:

The deaths of both my father and mother had been preceded by a paralytick shock. My father survived it for nearly two years, a melancholy respite & not to be desired. I was alarmd with Mrs Youngs morning visit when as you know I lost my speech. The medical people said it was from the stomach which might be but while the[re] is a doubt on a subject so alarming you will not doubt that the Subject or to use Hare's lingo the Shot should be a little anxious.

So, if we were to pluck Scott out of the 1820s and fast forward two hundred years to our world of today, this significant family history of cerebral haemorrhage or stroke would most certainly place him in lockdown!

And what of his wife of almost thirty years? Would she be able to pop out for essential supplies in her fashionable barouche? Lady Scott’s disease was certainly less obvious or visible to contemporaries in its earlier stages. Reports of her breathing difficulties or mental confusion date back to the early 1820s and, as time went on, they became more pronounced. Treated with opium tincture, calomel and in the latter stages, digitalis, Lady Scott was not a well person in the final two years of her life. She is unlikely to have enjoyed the home that they created together at Abbotsford as she deserved.

Her ultimate cause of death, pulmonary oedema, was most likely caused by underlying heart disease, although the circumstances of her upbringing make it difficult to say whether or not that condition was congenital. The family referred to her difficulties in the early days as ‘asthma’ because clearly this was the most obvious sign of distress. Either way, she too would have been hunkering down alongside her husband to weather the storm, which is exactly what we hope all of our readers are doing!

Wishing you good health and happy reading!

Kirsty Archer-Thompson

Collections and Interpretation Manager

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