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[…]

John Haygarth and Paying People to Get Vaccinated in 1798

He raised donations to pay local doctors to perform the procedure and to pay poor families for bringing their children. By Dr. Margaret DeLacyPresidentNorthwest Independent Scholars Association Several states now offer incentives for COVID vaccinations, hoping that enough people will sign up to drive the infection rate down and protect the entire community. When this[…]

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[…]

Analyzing 18th-Century Medical Innovations That Led to Vaccination

Today we talk easily of viruses, but in Edward Jenner’s day they were completely unknown. The time is ripe to recall the contributions of the physician-scientist who first put vaccines on the map, Edward Jenner.  Some claim that Jenner saved the lives of more people than any other figure in history, yet his contributions are[…]

The Origins of Inoculation

Vaccination led ultimately to the eradication of smallpox, one of the great achievements of medicine. By Arthur Boylston Introduction Early in the 18th century, variolation (referred to then as ‘inoculation’) was introduced to Britain and New England to protect people likely to be at risk of infection with smallpox. This triggered a number of important developments.[…]

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[…]

Competing Theories of the Medieval ‘Black Death’

Several possible causes have been advanced for the Black Death. Introduction Theories of the Black Death are a variety of explanations that have been advanced to explain the nature and transmission of the Black Death (1347–51). A number of epidemiologists since the 1980s have challenged the traditional view that the Black Death was caused by[…]

Protection, Kansas: Vaccine Response in 1957 and Today

They were the first to be fully inoculated against polio. Today is a different picture. Introduction Sixty-four years ago, residents of this tiny town in southwestern Kansas set a public health example by making it the first in the nation to be fully inoculated against polio. It’s a different story today. People in Protection, like[…]

The State of Science, Microbiology, and Vaccines in 1918

Many vaccines were developed and used during the 1918–1919 pandemic. Synopsis The influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 dramatically altered biomedical knowledge of the disease. At its onset, the foundation of scientific knowledge was information collected during the previous major pandemic of 1889–1890. The work of Otto Leichtenstern, first published in 1896, described the major epidemiological and[…]

‘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[…]

A History of Mental Illness since the Ancient World

Examining how past societies viewed and dealt with mental illness. Prehistoric and Ancient Beliefs Prehistoric cultures often held a supernatural view of abnormal behavior and saw it as the work of evil spirits, demons, gods, or witches who took control of the person. This form of demonic possession was believed to occur when the person[…]

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[…]

Amabie: A Disease-Fighting Mermaid of Japanese Lore

The world has become enchanted with a three-legged mermaid called Amabie, said to help fight plague. Last spring, in western Tokyo, my research assistant Payton Letko came upon an unusual treat in a small bakery: pastries in the shape of the Japanese folklore creature Amabie, a three-legged sea creature with scales and long flowing hair,[…]

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[…]

Medieval Medical Prescriptions in the 15th and 16th Centuries

Knowledge preserved in medieval books enjoyed a longevity that extended beyond the period of the manuscript book. Abstract This article examines a fifteenth-century remedy book, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson c. 299, and describes its collection of 314 medieval medical prescriptions. The recipes are organised broadly from head to toe, and often several remedies are offered[…]

Remote Learning during the 1937 Polio Epidemic

In Chicago’s 1937 ‘radio school’ experiment, technology filled the gap during a crisis. Introduction A UNICEF survey found that 94% of countries implemented some form of remote learning when COVID-19 closed schools last spring, including in the United States. This is not the first time education has been disrupted in the U.S. – nor the first time[…]

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.[…]