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  • Gillian Brockell

During a pandemic, Isaac Newton had to work from home, too. He used the time wisely.


Isaac Newton was in his early 20s when the Great Plague of London hit. He wasn’t a “Sir” yet, didn’t have that big formal wig. He was just another college student at Trinity College, Cambridge.

It would be another 200 years before scientists discovered the bacteria that causes plague, but even without knowing exactly why, folks back then still practiced some of the same things we do to avoid illness.

In 1665, it was a version of “social distancing” — a public health tool making a comeback this week as governments, schools and many businesses, including The Washington Post, send people home to try to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Cambridge sent students home to continue their studies. For Newton, that meant Woolsthorpe Manor, the family estate about 60 miles northwest of Cambridge.

Without his professors to guide him, Newton apparently thrived. The year-plus he spent away was later referred to as his annus mirabilis, the “year of wonders.”

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