‘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[…]

The Stranger Who Started an Epidemic in 19th-Century New Orleans

A huge expansion of the population of New Orleans created the perfect environment for the spread of yellow fever, and recent immigrants were those that suffered most. Doctors put this down to their “loathsome” lifestyles, but science was eventually to find another culprit. By Anna Faherty / 06.15.2017 Associate Lecturer University of the Arts London[…]

The Poor Child’s Nurse in Victorian England

Charming family scenes in Victorian adverts for children’s medicines were in stark contrast to some of the dangerous ingredients that the products contained. Alcohol and opiates were among the substances helping to ‘soothe’ the nation’s children. By Briony Hudson / 10.12.2017 Pharmacy Historian, Curator, Lecturer British Society for the History of Pharmacy When young Betsy[…]

The Rise and Fall of a 19th-Century Medical Mesmerist

The story of a flamboyant doctor whose famous fans included Dickens. But his experiments with hypnosis eventually met with establishment disapproval. By Wendy Moore / 04.23.2018 Journalist and Medical Historian We think of libraries as places of quiet solitude where information is reassuringly organised, ordered and catalogued. Yet for me one of the best things about[…]

Medical Treatment and the English Seaside in the 18th Century

Venus’s bathing. (Margate). Side way or any way., Thomas Rowlandson / Wellcome Collection, Creative Commons Fashionable seaside towns in England owe much of their popularity to the 18th-century doctors who advised their patients to take the ‘sea cure’. By Dr. Jane Darcy / 05.23.2018 Professor of Literature University College London Introduction How did the so-called ‘sea[…]

Children as Victims of Anti-Vaxxers in 19th-Century Britain

In the 1850s, smallpox vaccination became compulsory in Britain. But the influence of anti-vaccination campaigners meant outbreaks were still possible – as one teenage girl found out to her cost. By Anna Faherty / 07.20.2017 Associate Lecturer University of the Arts London Gloucester, 1896. Ethel Cromwell is taken ill at the height of Britain’s last great smallpox[…]

A Tradesman Forced to Confront the Pestilence in 17th-Century London

A combination of poverty and “plague orders” in 1665 trapped many in situations that meant almost certain infection and death. Weaver John New, like many confined with dying relatives, was denied the escape routes open to the rich. By Anna Faherty / 06.22.2017 Associate Lecturer University of the Arts London The City of London, 1665. As the[…]

What Is Yellow Fever? Disease and Causation in Environmental History

Aedes aegypti Diseases are entangled with the human-made world, and to reduce diseases to their nonhuman aspects is to risk naturalizing them in distorting ways. By Dr. Paul S. Sutter Professor of Environmental History University of Colorado Boulder In many environmental histories, diseases serve to make one of the field’s foundational claims: that nonhuman forces matter[…]

History of the Flu

The Plague at Ashdod, by Nicolas Poussin / Louvre Museum, Wikimedia Commons The word influenza is derived from the medieval Italian word for “influence” (influentia) and referred to the perceived causes of the disease. By Jim Davis / 03.15.2017 PhD Candidate in History The Ohio State University You may not like getting your flu shot, but you[…]

Disease Evolution: Our Long History of Fighting Viruses

A virus is essentially an information system (encoded in DNA or RNA) surrounded by a protective coat. Tom Thai/Flickr, Creative Commons Humans have a deep history of viral infections, the evidence for which dates back to ancient DNA from Egyptian mummies. By Dr. Peter C. Doherty / 04.26.2016 Laureate Professor The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity A virus[…]