Life under lockdown

Estimates suggest that 20% of the world’s population is currently under lockdown due to the current pandemic. Those that are not in full lockdown are likely experiencing significant disruption to their usual routine.

For the vast majority of us, these are strange and unprecedented times. Yet for past generations of Cambridge students and alumni, not yet beneficiaries of modern medicine, such periods of isolation were an occasional, albeit annoying, part of life.

We take a look at how famous Cambridge alumni throughout history have dealt with their own experiences of lockdown, quarantine and isolation.

At the end of the article you'll find a link to a webform where you can get in touch and share your own experiences of isolation during the current pandemic.

Isaac Newton (Trinity)

Isaac Newton is one of Trinity’s most accomplished alumni, but did you know that he is also a poster-child for productivity during a pandemic? In a situation that mirrors our own today, Newton was forced to practice the early-modern equivalent of social-distancing twice during his time as a Cambridge undergraduate.

Like many others in Cambridge during the Great Plague of 1665-6, Newton retreated to the countryside to escape the disease-ridden city and spent two extended periods at his family home in rural Lincolnshire, Woolsthorpe Manor.

While many of us are struggling to adapt to the new and uncertain challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, Newton thrived in his period of isolation, and later described it as one of the most productive times in his life. Freed from the limits of the Cambridge curriculum, and from the rigor and bustle of university life, Newton found that he had the breathing space to reflect on and develop his theories on optics, calculus, and the laws of motion and gravity.

It was during this time, from his chamber at Woolsthorpe, that Newton conducted his famous prism experiment. Probably to his parents' displeasure, he bored a hole through his window shutters to produce a single, thin beam of light to pass through two prisms, proving for the first time that prisms did not create colours, but merely separated colours that were already there made up of a colour spectrum.

Also visible from his chamber — and not on the front lawn of Trinity, like many Cambridge tour guides will have you believe — stood the now-legendary apple tree. While the story of the apple falling on his head is likely apocryphal, it is thought that Newton would gaze out of his window at the tree while formulating his law of gravity.

Indeed, Newton was so intellectually transformed by his period of isolation that later commentators have referred to his time away from Cambridge as his annus mirabilis, or his ‘year of wonders’.  

Painting of Sir Isaac Newton

John Milton (Christ's)

The author of Paradise Lost and Aeropagitica spent some time away from Cambridge as a first year undergraduate in 1626 but the exact reason behind his exile from Cambridge remains unclear.

Some historians have argued that he was forced to rusticate (suspend his studies) after a series of disagreements with his tutor, the fiery Bishop William Chappel. Other scholars have rejected this hypothesis, arguing instead that Milton was forced home after a particularly nasty outbreak of the bubonic plague hit Cambridge that year.

Whatever the cause of his isolation from Cambridge, we know that Milton was back home in London when he wrote Elegia Prima, his first Latin elegy. The work is an early example of his aptitude for verse composition, as well as his impressive comedic flair. Essentially a letter in verse form, the elegy was written for his closest friend Charles Diodati, and details how Milton was enjoying his unexpected period away from Cambridge while also anticipating his return to 'the reedy fens of the Cam' and 'the hum of the noisy school.'

Milton’s description of his activities during rustication (or perhaps quarantine) do not seem far removed from how current Cambridge students might be spending their time away from the University: he talks of filling the hours reading and people-watching. One notable difference, however, were his multiple visits to the theatre—a pastime that is sadly off-limit to us today during our current lockdown.

Painting of John Milton

Mary Beard (Newnham)

Lockdown in the 21st century looks very different to those of the previous generations. Blessed (or cursed, depending on your outlook) with modern technology, it is easier for us to remain connected with one another and, for many, to maintain at least a semblance of our pre-pandemic work routines.

Classicist Professor Mary Beard has shared her current isolation routine in a series of blog posts on the Times Literary Supplement website. Thanks to video-calling and online communication, things have been largely business as usual. She is able to ‘see’ her students electronically and read their work, take interviews from her study and publish online content (including a fascinating bit for the BBC about how ‘rubbish’ the ancients Romans would be at social distancing!) Like Cambridge alumni before her, she is also using the time to crack on with academic projects, and is currently working on a new book.

She has been candid, however, about the downsides of being confined to your house every day. Like many of us, she is concerned about the potential for unwanted weight gain. Who could have known that the strength of our willpower is so intimately linked to our proximity to the biscuit tin?

Photo of Mary Beard

Lord Byron (Trinity)

In 1811 Lord Byron was forced to quarantine at a facility in Malta after returning from a cholera-ravaged Greece. Mirroring measures put in place by many countries during the current pandemic, Malta required all visitors to stay at the Lazzaretto quarantine facility on their arrival for a fixed period of time, in attempt to limit the spread of disease from foreign travellers.

Byron was furious at the prospect of spending 40 days in lockdown, a measure that he considered to be draconian and unnecessary. Shortly after his arrival, however, he developed a severe case of Yellow Fever, an illness that he later described in near-death terms. While he probably contracted the illness in Greece, Byron was convinced that he caught it while confined at the Lazzaretto facility, which only served to augment the ire he felt towards Malta.

While confined, he wrote ‘Farewell to Malta’, a satirical poem attacking the island for (among other things) its ‘cursed street of stairs’ and 'failing merchants'. He references his quarantine  explicitly in the first verse ‘Adieu, thou damned'st quarantine, / That gave me fever, and the spleen!’.

Despite his anger, he soon recovered and was able to go on with his European travels. Luckily for him, his next period of isolation proved to be far more hedonistic (and notorious) ­– the near-mythic summer confined with the Shelleys on the dark and stormy shores of Lake Geneva.

Painting Lord Byron

Painting Lord Byron

Charles Darwin (Christ’s)

Unlike the other alumni featured in this article, Darwin’s experience with isolation was not the result of a pandemic but rather his own chronic ill health. The biologist suffered intermittently from a myriad of unexplained symptoms, including vertigo, vomiting, cramps, fatigue, anxiety and visual disturbances.

At several points in his life, his symptoms would become so debilitating that he was confined to his house for months at a time. On the subject of his isolation, he noted in his autobiography of 1876 that "few persons can have lived a more retired life than we [Darwin and his wife Emma] have done. Besides short visits to the houses of relations, and occasionally to the seaside or elsewhere, we have gone nowhere."

Paradoxically, Darwin believed that his periods of isolation and ill health helped his career. At home, he was free from the demands placed on other scientists (teaching, administrative work) and thus able to devote himself entirely to his research. He wrote "ill-health, though it has annihilated several years of my life, has saved me from the distractions of society and amusement."

Photo of Charles Darwin

Photo of Charles Darwin

We want to hear how our alumni are spending their time during the pandemic. Are you stuck at home in lockdown conditions? Or perhaps on the frontline in the fight against the coronavirus? Either way, we want you to share you experience.