New Insights Into the Last Plague of Imola

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In a new paper published to the journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers from the University of Ferrara and the University of Oslo has shed new light on the last major plague epidemic to strike Northern Italy.

Analyzing remains discovered in four mass graves in the city of Imola and parsing through a previously unpublished register written by the friar Francesco Da Gazzo, who cared for hundreds of plague victims, the team revealed the devastating outcome of the plague on the city's residents.

In October of 1629, an outbreak that started in Milan as soldiers returned from the Thirty-Year War quickly spread to dozens of surrounding cities. Imola, located on the river Santerno about 160 miles away, was one of them. When the epidemic concluded in 1632, about a fifth of the population of Northern Italy had died.

The researchers excavated four mass graves, in which they discovered 133 distinct skeletons. Two coins found amongst the remains, each referring to Pope Gregory XV, who held the papacy from 1621 to 1623, confirmed the date of the burials to the time of the epidemic.

Of the 133 individuals, 43 were estimated to be teenagers or children. The researchers examined teeth from 15 different remains, confirming via ancient DNA analysis that each had been infected with Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague. Reading through Da Gazzo's records, they found that in 1632, the final year of the outbreak, 1204 individuals were reported to have fallen ill, and 864 individuals are reported to have died of “plague” in the city of Imola. This allowed them to estimate that over the three years of the epidemic, about 10% of Imola's 17,000 inhabitants died, a relatively lucky result considering that many larger cities like Milan, Venice, and Padua experienced mortality rates higher than 30%. Imola's lighter death rate also suggested to the researchers that the plague there was almost certainly bubonic rather than pneumonic. Bubonic plague is mainly spread by infected fleas, while the more contagious pneumonic plague typically spreads by airborne droplets.

The study is yet another reminder that before sanitation improved and antibiotics arrived, infectious diseases like the plague could absolutely decimate humanity. Now, only 650 cases of bubonic plague are reported each year.

Source: Guellil, M., Rinaldo, N., Zedda, N. et al. Bioarchaeological insights into the last plague of Imola (1630–1632). Sci Rep 11, 22253 (2021).

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