Monday, November 26, 2012

A post-Thanksgiving story of leptospirosis

I'm about half way through 1491, a book that gives readers a view of the Americas before Columbus showed up.  It also describes the devastating impact that foreign infectious diseases had on the native population as Europeans explored the New World.

One chapter tells the story of Tisquantum (Squanto), who lived in the village of Patuxet, one of the many Indian communities thriving along the coast of New England at the time.  In 1614 Thomas Hunt, a British slave trader, kidnapped Tisquantum and other Indians and shipped them to Spain.  Fortunately, Tisquantum was rescued by Spanish priests before he could be sold.  After convincing the priests to let him return home, he left for London, where he learned English while staying at a shipbuilder's home, and eventually made his way back to North America.  As he sailed down the New England shoreline in 1619 on a British ship, he realized that the world familiar to him had vanished.  A mysterious disease had wiped out 90% of the population of coastal New England.  When he arrived at his home village of Patuxet, he found it deserted.  Tisquantum was soon captured and sent to Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag confederacy, which encompassed Patuxet.  Massasoit did not trust Tisquantum because of his recent association with the British, yet he would later use him as a translator in a negotiation that turned out to be a pivotal event in American history.

The epidemic had been blamed at one time or another on smallpox, the plague, yellow fever, typhus, and hepatitis.  As I've mentioned before, a recent analysis has added leptospirosis to the list of suspects.  The symptoms and signs of leptospirosis match those reported from first-hand accounts of the mystery ailment.  Here's a post on the Slate website about the epidemic.  I'm glad to see that the story is getting attention from popular news sites.

Leptospirosis can be deadly, but could it account for the devastating 90% motality rate of the 1616-1619 epidemic?  A hypervirulent strain of Leptospira or genetic susceptibility of the Indians could be an explanation.  However, the authors of the study thought that the most critical factor was the Indian lifestyle, which brought them into repeated contact with Leptospira in the environment.  The Europeans who fished nearby were spared because they did not engage in activities that exposed them to Leptospira.  Therefore, only the Indians contracted the illness, according to the hypothesis.

Figure 3 from Marr and Cathey, 2010.

Whatever its cause, it's hard to overstate the significance of the epidemic.  Prior to 1616, the New England native communities traded with the Europeans and even welcomed them for brief stays.  However, all attempts by the foreigners to establish permanent settlements were fiercely resisted.  Coastal New England was well defended by the large native population.  The Wampanoag confederacy became especially hostile towards the Europeans after having their citizens abducted.

By the time the Mayflower landed in Patuxet (Plymouth) in December of 1620, the thinking of the Wampanoag had changed.  Their depleted population was vulnerable to attack by their longtime enemies to the west, the Narragansett, who remained untouched by the epidemic.  To forestall an attack, Massasoit felt that the best course of action was to form an alliance with the Pilgrims rather than expel them.  In the spring of 1621, with Tisquantum serving as the translator, Massasoit arranged a peace treaty with the Pilgrims.


Marr J.S. & Cathey J.T. (2010). New hypothesis for cause of epidemic among Native Americans, New England, 1616–1619, Emerging Infectious Diseases, 16 (2) 281-286. DOI:

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