THE WINGED PLAGUE
In San Gimignano we were present when a chamber in a church was opened which had been sealed after one of the plague outbreaks during the Middle Ages. In this beautiful city of towers nothing now reminded one about the Black Plague. It was known, according to calculations, that the danger of plague infection had disappeared and that it was safe to open the chamber. But, naturally, people were still afraid, and only a few dared to enter this high hall, decorated with Gozzoli frescoes. Indeed, the sealing of that chamber primarily had beneficially affected the preservation of the frescoes themselves. No one had thought of cleaning, washing, or restoring them.
Stories about the plague were revived with especial agitation when news of this sealed chamber became known. Among other appellations given to the plague long ago, it was for some reason called "winged." Apparently in this pier the suddenness of the appearance of this epidemic was stressed. Actually, the terrible Black Death usually flared up suddenly, without any apparent cause. Then, after exhausting its wrath, it flew further and again alighted unexpectedly in a new place, amidst unlooked-for conditions. In the final analysis, all the so-called epidemics always flared up without any previous local symptoms.
For some reason, they usually flared up especially strongly where they were not supposed to be. And their very disappearance, although conditioned by special measures was, as it were, dependent upon some other invisible factors.
Tales and beliefs of the remote past aside for the moment, the following relates something which took place in present times. "An American biologist, Bernard E. Proctor, undertook a series of experiments to establish the height above Earth at which all life ceases to exist. Proctor engaged an American army flier who specialized in flying at high altitudes. To one wing of the aeroplane there was fastened a pipe divided in the middle by a sheet of greased paper. At the speed of the aeroplane — 250 kilometers an hour — the air rushed with great force into the pipe, whereupon the greased paper played the role of a filter, capturing all microorganisms.
"After each flight the paper filter .was delivered to the laboratory of Prof. Proctor where it was subjected to a careful bacteriological analysis. As a result of forty flights at an altitude of 5,000 meters it was established that in these strata of air there exist not less than twenty-nine species of various kinds of microorganisms, bacteria, barm fungi, etc., and also the spores and seeds of plants".
"Above 5,000 meters the number of species diminishes, but bacteria and fungi are found in great quantities up to 7,000 meters. Higher, between seven and ten kilometers, the filter retains only a few kinds of bacteria, which, nevertheless, endure excellently the rarefaction of air and likewise the low temperature of the region just below the stratosphere. The experiments were not performed at a height above ten kilometers, but the graph drawn by Prof. Proctor on the basis of the material obtained permits the conjecture that life continues also in the stratosphere itself.
"As a result of these experiments Prof. Proctor came to a curious and unexpected conclusion: he pointed out the role which could be played by storms and cyclones in spreading infectious diseases. A whirlwind which circulates over a locality stricken by an epidemic is capable of catching up and carrying away myriads of microbes. And they, in turn, following the aerial currents of the upper strata of the atmosphere, could travel hundreds and thousands of kilometers. (In this way the volcanic dust cast out during the eruption of Krakatoa was carried to Europe.) Thus the medieval concept about the "winged plague" acquires, as it were, the character of a scientific theory.
"Prof. Proctor believes that many epidemics which flare up suddenly over vast territory have precisely this origin".
Here once again we learn to what an extent cosmic conditions are linked with the way of human life. Once again we are shown how from unexpected (according to human understanding) regions there may come sinister as well as healing messages. The ancient peoples, while not knowing how to employ more detailed formulas, characterized, according to their essence, such cosmo-human manifestations rather expressively. The winged flight of the epidemic remains also at present, as we see, a rather apt description. Upon unknown wings dangerous particles are being carried. Upon some other wings salvation comes flying. It would seem fitting to hope that the scientists also will seize upon the possibility of healing epidemics.
One has occasionally heard about whole islands and parts of continents seemingly doomed to inevitable sinking. With exact figures in their possession the scientists prove that either some vast submarine gorges must be filled up or whole verdant islands will sink into these abysses. If the Black Plague and its sinister allies are winged, then similarly the subterranean and submarine processes threaten incalculable catastrophes. True, it will be explained that all such dangers may manifest only after many millions of years. We will be reminded about the listener who, in the course of such a lecture, once asked the scientist whether the end of the world was to come in one or in two billions of years. And upon being told that it might be two billions, he breathed more easily. Such hypotheses are naturally soothing for humanity. But if we examine certain accounts of earthquakes, the same scientists will tell us that dates calculated in billions of years may have to undergo considerable revisions. Thus, if even the plague was called winged, then what appellations could be applied to other, no less vigorous, natural processes?
In any event, if the term winged flight was applicable to such dark messengers, then a still greater mobility and salubrity must be demanded for the restoration of health. The same records of antiquity enumerate many islands, which undoubtedly at one time existed and then disappeared, and they also tell us in foreboding language about the causes of these disappearances. Usually these disappearances are ascribed to an upsurge of human impiety or pride, or excessive presumption. In these legends people sought to express in their own way the link between the human spirit and cosmic manifestations. Verily, this link is strong, and, significantly, among the forthcoming tasks of science lies the investigation of thought.
February 2, 1935