A Modern History of the Search for a Vaccine to Vanquish the Plague

There are three types of plague infection — bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic — and all are caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria. The plague is best known for wiping out as much as a third of Europe’s population during the Black Death pandemic of the 14th century, but it’s not entirely a thing of the[…]

‘Breaking the Back of Polio’ with Dorothy Horstmann in the 1940s

Yale’s Dorothy Horstmann solved a puzzle that would lead to the first polio vaccines 65 years ago. Introduction Sixty-five years ago, following the largest public health trial in American history, a killed-virus polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk, M.D., was found to be safe, potent and effective. The news set off a national celebration. Salk[…]

Researching Tuberculosis Patients at an Army Hospital in New Mexico, 1899-1912

The Fort Bayard military reservation was established in 1866. Introduction It started with a “heavy cold.”[1] In May of 1904, U.S. Army Capt. Ward Pershing experienced “prolonged exposure” while marching from Fort Leavenworth to Topeka, and by June had developed a phlegmy cough.[2] The cold had only gotten worse the following April, when Pershing sought[…]

How Plague Helped Make Ancient Rome a Superpower

Epidemics haunt history, but they shape history too, as happened in 212 BCE at Syracuse. “The dogs were the first to feel the mischief; next the birds flagged in their flight and dropped down from the black clouds; and then the beasts of the forest were laid low. Soon the infernal plague spread further, depopulating[…]

The Plague in Ancient Athens: A Cautionary Tale

Thucydides indicates that this plague was extraordinary in that “a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered.” In his book, The History of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek historian Thucydides provides the setting. Athens and Sparta had been the two principal leaders of the united Greeks who vanquished the mighty Persian Empire fifty[…]

How Plagues and Disease Have Influenced the Arts since the Ancient World

Throughout history, writers and artists have explored the impact of plagues and pandemics on humanity. One of the things about literature is that it always responds immediately to what’s happening in the environment, says Associate Professor Justin Clemens from the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. “People started writing responses to[…]

Jane and Cicely: Massachusetts Slaves Who Died of an Epidemic in 1714

The lives, labor, and sacrifices of women and girls of color have been overlooked for centuries. Introduction What I believe to be the oldest surviving gravestone for a Black person in the Americas memorializes an enslaved teenager named Cicely. Cicely’s body is interred across from Harvard’s Johnston Gate in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She died in 1714 during a[…]

How a Flu Virus Shut Down the U.S. Economy in 1872 – by Infecting Horses

A fast-moving equine flu cratered the U.S. economy in the fall of 1872. Introduction In 1872 the U.S. economy was growing as the young nation industrialized and expanded westward. Then in the autumn, a sudden shock paralyzed social and economic life. It was an energy crisis of sorts, but not a shortage of fossil fuels.[…]

Quarantine Rule Breakers in 17th-Century Italy

People broke public health laws during the 17th-century plague in Italy, but there were clergymen who intervened. Introduction Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts between religious freedom and public health regulations have been playing out in courts around the world. Churches from California to Maine have flouted public health orders by convening in[…]

How the Polio Vaccine Went from the Lab to the Public

The Cutter Incident was a tragic error showed how complicated it can be to distribute vaccines on a mass scale. Introduction In 1955, after a field trial involving 1.8 million Americans, the world’s first successful polio vaccine was declared “safe, effective, and potent.” It was arguably the most significant biomedical advance of the past century.[…]

How Pandemics Triggered Societal Shifts in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds

Societies and cultures that seem ossified and entrenched were suddenly open to conquest, innovation, and social change. Introduction Before March of this year, few probably thought disease could be a significant driver of human history. Not so anymore. People are beginning to understand that the little changes COVID-19 has already ushered in or accelerated –[…]

‘The Blue Sickness’: Impacts and Consequences of the Medieval ‘Black Death’

Medieval people called it “the blue sickness”, “La pest” (the pestilence), and “the Great Mortality”. NOTE: Hover mouse over highlighted text for further information. Introduction Beginning in 1347 and continuing for a full five years, a devastating plague swept Europe, leaving in its wake more than twenty million people dead. This epidemic now known as[…]

Comets, Omens, and Fear: Understanding Plague in the Middle Ages

In medieval times natural phenomena, such as comets and eclipses, were regarded as portents of natural disasters, including plagues. Introduction On August 30 2019, a comet from outside our solar system was observed by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov at the MARGO observatory in Crimea. This was only the second time an interstellar comet had ever[…]

The Concept of Quarantine in History

From ancient times different populations have adopted varying strategies to prevent and contain disease. By Dr. Gian Franco Gensini, Dr. Magdi H. Yacoub, and Dr. Andrea A. Conti Abstract The concept of ‘quarantine’ is embedded in health practices, attracting heightened interest during episodes of epidemics. The term is strictly related to plague and dates back[…]

A 19th-Century Artist’s Effort to Grapple with Representing Tuberculosis

For the grieving painter who lose his wife to the disease, art functioned as a kind of medicine. Introduction Like everyone else, artists have been challenged by new conditions and routines since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have had to adjust what they make as well as how and where they work, coming[…]

Early Concepts of Disease

For many centuries explanations for disease were based not on science, but on religion, superstition, and myth. Hunter-Gatherers Ten thousand years ago humans were hunter-gatherers. They had a short life span, but not because of epidemics; their primary problem was just finding enough food to eat. They lived and traveled in small groups and hunted[…]

Ancient Diseases: Traces of Suffering in the Bones

Diseases have often influenced historical events, but they are neglected in the documentation of these events. Human remains used to be considered a nuisance in archaeological excavations. Today they are considered a valuable source of information to understand the ways of life of prehistoric populations and their conditions. A short distance from what is now[…]

Early Uses of Diphtheria Antitoxin in the United States

The transition to use of diphtheria antitoxin to treat ill humans happened quickly. It’s hard to identify exactly when it was first used. Introduction One of the fascinating things about the history of vaccinology is how quickly late 19th century researchers moved from identifying microbes as the cause of certain diseases to developing ways to[…]

Cholera Outbreaks and Pandemics since 1817

Between 1816 and 1923, the first six cholera pandemics occurred consecutively and continuously over time. Introduction Seven cholera pandemics have occurred in the past 200 years, with the first pandemic originating in India in 1817. Additionally, there have been many documented cholera outbreaks, such as a 1991–1994 outbreak in South America and, more recently, the[…]

Philadelphia Under Siege: The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

20,000 people, including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and much of the federal government fled the city to escape the fever. By Samuel A. Gum The summer was the hottest in years. The humidity was hardly bearable. The muddy swamps of Philadelphia spawned round after round of mosquitoes which relentlessly assaulted their human blood meals. An[…]

Great Sorrows: The Deadly ‘Throat Distemper’, 1735-1736

When Massachusetts was hit by Diptheria and Scarlett Fever at the same time. In 1736, scarlet fever was present in Boston and neighboring towns, but while the scarlet fever epidemic was spreading out from Boston, the diphtheria epidemic was descending from the north, and in Essex county they traveled along the Old Bay Road at[…]

Beating the Bodysnatchers in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Mortsafes at Kinnernie graveyard, Aberdeenshire / Wellcome Collection, Creative Commons When an expansion in the study of anatomy at medical schools fuelled a brisk trade in grave robbing, families fought to protect their loved ones’ remains. Allison C. Meier explains how mortsafes kept the bodysnatchers at bay. By Allison C. Meier / 06.14.2018 Introduction In the Scottish hamlet[…]

The Victorian Prostitute Whose ‘Pox’ Inspired Feminists

In Victorian times, syphilis was believed to arise spontaneously in a prostitute’s body, a result of ‘immorality’. But as medical knowledge advanced, early feminists began to challenge the law that detained and punished women for their illness. By Anna Faherty / 07.20.2017 Associate Lecturer University of the Arts London Fitzrovia, 1875. A woman recorded only as “A[…]

Diagnosing the Past

The diagnosis: a skeletal doctor measures a patient’s pulse, L. Crusius / Wellcome Collection, Creative commons Texts that are hundreds of years old might yield clues to medical problems of the past. But without a body, a definitive diagnosis is rarely possible. And unless you know the context of what you’re reading, it’s possible to go[…]

Illuminated Manuscripts, Illuminating Medicines

From hunting rare bugs to harvesting the world’s most expensive plant parts, conservator Cheryl Porter will try almost anything to learn more about pigments from the past. These colours weren’t only used to illuminate manuscripts and paintings – they were also important medicines, and artists would often source the raw materials for their work from[…]

Why the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ Defied Both Memory and Imagination

Books, music, artworks and memorials help ensure that victims of pandemics are remembered. But while the Black Death, AIDS and Ebola outbreaks are firmly part of our collective cultural memory, the Spanish flu outbreak has not been. Medical historian and author Mark Honigsbaum explains why. By Dr. Mark Honigsbaum / 10.25.2018 Lecturer in Medical History[…]

The ‘Blue Terror’: British Troops and Cholera in 19th-Century India

As Indians began to rebel against colonial rule, the British accused them of spreading cholera, little imagining who was really to blame. The terrors that confronted one colonist show how alarming the outbreak had become. By Anna Faherty / 06.06.2017 Associate Lecturer University of the Arts London India, 1857. In a British enclave, Katherine Bartrum watches her[…]

Typhoid Mary: The Cook Who became a Pariah

A healthy-seeming cook gained unwelcome notoriety as Typhoid Mary, unwittingly spreading disease to co-workers and employers. Ultimately, the New York authorities took extreme measures to protect the public. By Anna Faherty / 06.29.2017 Associate Lecturer University of the Arts London New York, 1907. Mary Mallon spreads infection, unaware that her name will one day become synonymous with[…]