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Copy of a fumigating torch (1600s), Europe

Fumigating torches were used in the 1600s to protect the carrier from bubonic plague. Sweet smelling herbs burnt in the top of the torch were thought to protect against disease. Both the buboes caused by the disease and the breath of the dying smelt foul and it was thought that disease was spread by rancid smells. Plague seemed to spread quickly from person to person but was later discovered to be spread by the fleas carried on rats. Henry Wellcome did his utmost to acquire objects for his collection. He was not always successful. Undeterred, he would seek permission to have copies made of those objects he could not acquire.

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Glossary: fumigator

An object used to disinfect or purify the air with fumes, often used to eradicate pest infestations from buildings.

Glossary: plague

An acute contagious fever with high levels of mortality. Both the 'Black Death' that swept Europe in the 1340s and the Great Plague of London in 1665 are believed to have been bubonic plague.

Glossary: bubo

An inflammation of a lymphatic gland (armpit or groin) commonly found in syphilis or the plague.

Glossary: bubonic plague

Thought to have been the cause of the Black Death, the bubonic plague is caused by a bacterial infection of the lymphatic system, the network of capillary vessels in the human body. The plague is most commonly transmitted via the bites of fleas. Characteristic symptoms include enlarged lymph glands (buboes).