Just a few decades after isolated Shakespeare penned some of his most famous plays in history, another outbreak of the bubonic plague hit England, and forced Cambridge University student, Isaac Newton, into isolation. Newton was 20 years old in 1665 and seeing that all classes were canceled, he returned to his family estate in Lincolnshire. Young Newton didn’t have any zoom classes to attend or emails to answer, and despite (or maybe because of?) this complete lack of structure, he excelled.
During his time in quarantine, the young mathematician produced what would be some of his most famous works. He developed his theories on optics while experimenting with a prism in his bedroom, laid the ground for an early form of calculus, and even his theory of gravity started to bud during this time. While the apple falling on his head is probably a myth, Newton did have an apple tree outside his bedroom window, which he likely looked at every day during his quarantine.
The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, whose most famous work is 'The Scream', didn’t just go into quarantine to avoid the Spanish Flu, he actually contracted the disease in 1919. Interestingly, there haven’t been many depictions of the Spanish flu pandemic in art, probably due to the fact that there was a world war raging at the time which consumed the attention of artists and thinkers. So Munch’s documentation of his quarantine is actually one of the few artworks that recorded the existence of this deadly disease.
As soon as he felt physically capable, the artist gathered his painting supplies and captured his physical state. The result is 'Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu', a painting which shows him with thinning hair and a forlorn facial expression sitting in front of his sickbed.
The bubonic plague wreaked havoc all over Europe in the Middle ages. When it hit Florence in 1348, writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio lost both of his parents to the disease. Boccaccio himself survived the outbreak thanks to his decision to flee the city and go into isolation in the Tuscan countryside.
During his time there he wrote 'The Decameron', a collection of short stories framed as entertaining stories a group of friends tell each other while quarantined inside a villa, hiding from the Black Death. This quarantine project came to be considered Boccaccio’s masterpiece, and its influence on Renaissance literature in Europe was enormous. 'The Decameron' is also an important historical record for us today, of the physical, psychological, and social effects of the aggressive spread of the previously unknown disease.
In 1885, a massive volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora in Indonesia killed nearly 100,000 people and choked the sky with ash and dust. But the overall toll turned out to be much higher. The following summer, instead of sunshine, Europe was covered in fog and even frost. The crisis, which had a dire effect on crops around the world, unleashed famine and a global cholera pandemic.
When Mary Shelley arrived at Lake Geneva for a vacation in 1816 the weather was so ghastly after the eruption, she was trapped inside for nearly the entire time. It was during this time that Shelley crafted her story of Frankenstein, after listening to the long dark debates of her fellow vacationers on the topic whether human corpses could be galvanized, or re-animated, after death. She didn’t know it at the time but Shelley’s Frankenstein would go on to revolutionize literature and popular culture.
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