Kircher Revived: The Great Plague of 1740

Kircher, Athanasius (1602-1680)

Scrutinium Pestis Physico-Medicum publico commodo recusum. dum per reverend. patrem Urbanum Madcho ... in ejusdem Universitatis aula academica, de re litteraria philosophica benemeriti, supremâ philosophiae laureâ donarentur

Graz: Typis Haeredum Widmanstadii, 1740


Octavo: 15.5 x 9.5 cm. 240 p. Collation: )(6, A-P8, Q2

Bound in contemporary calf, minor wear and small loss to leather at foot of spine. The text is in fine condition with occasional faint spotting.

Originally published in 1658, 7 years before Hooke's "Micrographia" appeared in print, Kircher's work on the plague and its causes was a landmark work on the subject. In 1740, in response to the Great Plague that was ravaging Eastern Europe, the Jesuit faculty at the University of Graz republished the work "for the public good." The plague began in 1738 and killed at least 50,000 people in areas of (modern-day) Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, and Austria.

The origins of Kircher's work:

"In 1656 bubonic plague, which had already ravaged Southern Italy, reached Rome. Thousands fled from the city to avoid the contagion. Of those who remained fifteen thousand perished, despite the efforts of the health authorities, directed by the Pope in person.

"The Jesuits and the other religious of Rome labored unceasingly to help the plague victims. Kircher applied his scientific skill to finding some remedy for the disease. With the assistance of the doctors of Rome he examined numbers of patients, suggesting cures and treatments. Moreover, using the primitive microscopes at his disposal, he examined blood samples from infected persons. He came to the conclusion that "the carriers of plague are tiny worms (vermiculi), so small, fine and subtle, that they can only be recognized through a very good microscope". He suggested that the plague was spread by contact between persons, or by cats and dogs and even by flies and other insects. Kircher published the results of these investigations in a book entitled Scrutinium Physico medicum contagiosae Luis, quae Pestis dicitur (Rome, 1658).

"It is true that what Kircher saw through his microscope may have been blood corpuscles or even insect larvae, and not bacteria, but his book nevertheless contains an excellent resume of all that was then known of the plague. Moreover its sections on the spread of the disease were most valuable and far in advance of much that had been written on the subject until that time."(Reilly, "Father Athanasius Kircher, S.J.: Master of an Hundred Arts", Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 44, No. 176 (Winter, 1955), pp. 457-468)

"Kircher begins the work with the pious and ancient assertion that the plague is the scourge of God for man's sins. But passing quickly from theology he distinguishes a plague from sporadic and endemic illnesses, following Hippocrates and Galen. He then discusses the causes of the plague, listing the traditional possibilities like bad air, putrefying bodies, and decaying matter. Kircher was perhaps the first to suggest that physicians themselves may spread the plague through unclean hands and instruments. Although Kircher expends not a few pages refuting oddities like the astrological causes of plagues and antidotes from the juices of toads, he also records several significant observations.


"Kircher was the earliest of the microscopists and certainly the first to apply microscopy to medical research. By scrutinizing blood samples from infected patients , he was able under a microcope to detect vermiculi, or tiny animals, invisible to the naked eye. These, he hypothesized, could be the cause of the plague and could be spread through the air or through the pores by contact. Clearly, it was not the illusive plague bacillus Pasturella pestis that Kircher saw, but perhaps much larger bacteria spawned in the unsterile blood specimens. The actual bacillus was not discovered until 1894 by Kitasato and Yersin with the aid of high-powered microscopes and advanced staining processes. Nevertheless, Kircher was undoubtedly the first to advance the theory that infectious diseases are caused by microscopic living organisms. He suggested further that diseases may be spread not only by man but also by animals, especially household pets, and by insects, although he was unaware of the exact carriers of the plague: the rat and its passenger, the flea. These observations alone give the 'Scrutinium' a seminal place in the history of medicine. In the conclusion, Kircher gives a chronological list of the great plagues recorded by man."(Merrill, "Athanasius Kircher, Jesuit Scholar". BYU, 1989)

For the first edition, see: Brunet III, 668; Caillet II, 365.5792; Clendening 7.8; De Backer I, 426.16; VII, 286.13; Garrison /Morton 589.5118; Grassse IV, 22; Sommervogel IV, 1057-58.16