Noah Webster: Chronicler of Disease and Epidemics in the 18th and 19th Centuries

As a newspaper editor, he covered the outbreak of yellow fever; as an historian, he searched for the causes of epidemics. Noah Webster was an all-around do-gooder of the founding generation. He is remembered specifically for his blue-backed speller and the leading role he played in the creation of an American dictionary. In the speller,[…]

Benjamin Franklin’s Fight against a Deadly Virus in 1721

When Bostonians in 1721 faced a deadly smallpox outbreak, a new procedure called inoculation was found to help fend off the disease. By Dr. Mark CanadaExecutive Vice Chancellor for Academic AffairsIndiana University Kokomo By Dr. Christian ChauretDean of School of Sciences, Professor of MicrobiologyIndiana University Kokomo Introduction Exactly 300 years ago, in 1721, Benjamin Franklin[…]

Past and Present: The “Mark of the Beast” in Anti-Vaxxer Georgian Britain

Exploring the widespread worry in Georgian Britain that immunity came with beastly side effects. By Erica X. EisenEditorHypocrite Reader This article, “The Mark of the Beast”: Georgian Britain’s Anti-Vaxxer Movement, was originally published in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. If you wish to reuse it please see: https://publicdomainreview.org/legal/ The ox-faced boy who[…]

Morbus Regius: The ‘King’s Evil’ and a Medieval Disease

The idea that the royal touch could cure the infection persisted for 1,200 years down through the 18th century. By Dr. John C. HorganAssistant Professor of HistoryUniversity of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Introduction The king’s evil (from the Latin morbus regius meaning royal sickness), more commonly known as scrofula or medically tuberculous lymphadenitis, was a skin disease believed to be cured by the[…]

The 17th-Century Cloth Merchant Who Discovered the Vast Realm of Tiny Microbes

Van Leeuwenhoek, who discovered bacteria, is one of the most important figures in the history of medicine. Introduction Imagine trying to cope with a pandemic like COVID-19 in a world where microscopic life was unknown. Prior to the 17th century, people were limited by what they could see with their own two eyes. But then[…]

The Price of Public Resistance to Safety during the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic

At the first hint the virus was receding, people pushed to get life back to normal. Unfortunately another surge of the disease followed. Introduction Picture the United States struggling to deal with a deadly pandemic. State and local officials enact a slate of social-distancing measures, gathering bans, closure orders and mask mandates in an effort[…]

How Bubonic Plague Reshaped the Streets of Mumbai in the 19th Century

In fact, you can’t really understand Mumbai without understanding the bubonic plague. Introduction On a leafy uphill road in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb, a fire burns at a Catholic shrine. Garlands adorn a cross and idols of saints below it as pedestrians walk by wearing masks. A nondescript sign at the back of the shrine tells[…]

A 300-Year-Old Tale of One Woman’s Quest to Stop a Deadly Virus

Science and determination turned the tide against one of the worst diseases humanity has ever endured. Three hundred years ago, in 1721, England was in the grips of a smallpox epidemic. “There were people dying all over the place,” says Isobel Grundy, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Alberta in Canada. “Social life[…]

The Medieval Holocaust: Plague and Jewish Persecution in Germany, 1348-1349

The persecution and destruction of the Jews of Germany at the time of the Black Death. Introduction The Jews of Germany have suffered a great deal from persecutions over the centuries. The Holocaust of the 1940s, for example, ranks among the most brutal events in recorded history, but there were many other instances of oppression[…]

Plague in the Ancient World

Throughout history, plagues have severely affected human societies. By Christine A. Smith Throughout history, humans have been faced with disastrous catastrophes which must be endured in order to survive. One of the most incomprehensible disasters for humanity has been the plague. This term in Greek can refer to any kind of sickness; in Latin, the[…]

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[…]