Past Pandemics

Despite their imperceptible nature, the impact of our “deadly companions” is clear in the historical record. And the history of pandemics helps us better appreciate the current COVID-19 experience…By studying the history of pandemics, we gain an appreciation for the economic as well as the social costs they bring to bear. History also offers an opportunity to learn from our past mistakes, such as stigmatizing patients in ways that were often as punishing as the disease itself. It reminds us to offer abundant empathy for patients suffering from COVID-19 and their families.





"Because there have been multiple pandemics of bubonic plague in history, scholars sometimes refer to the Justinianic Plague as the “First Plague Pandemic” so as to distinguish it from the “Second Plague Pandemic” in the fourteenth century (also known as the “Black Death”) and the “Third Plague Pandemic” in the nineteenth century. …


In fact, bubonic plague is an extremely old disease, and scientists have detected the DNA of the pathogen that causes it—the bacterium Yersinia pestis—in the remains of late Neolithic-era humans (4500-2000 BCE). We know that the plague first hit cities in the southeastern Mediterranean, and moved swiftly through the Levant to the imperial capital of Constantinople, where it was first reported in 541 CE. From there, it spread westward through regions of the former Roman Empire, reaching as far north as Germany and Britain."

-Dr. Kristina Sessa
Read more here!

"The Black Death was the second pandemic of bubonic plague and the most devastating pandemic in world history. It was a descendant of the ancient plague that had afflicted Rome, from 541 to 549 CE, during the time of emperor Justinian…It moved from Central Asia to China in the early 1200s and reached the Black Sea in the late 1340s. Hitting the Middle East and Europe between 1347 and 1351, the Black Death had aftershocks still felt into the early 1700s. When it was over, the European population was cut by a third to a half, and China and India suffered death on a similar scale.”

-Dr. John Brooke
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Black Death





“For Native Americans, cycles of destabilizing change ricocheted across Indian Country in the era of encounters, which suppressed the overall health of those individuals and their communities. After all, imperialists scorched villages and fields of Native townships; settlers enslaved, bought, or transported Native people across vast distances; they confined Indian communities in inhospitable places; they forced cultural, economic, and social revolutions among Indigenous polities.


Surely these decisions are relevant to the story. Undoubtedly, they increased susceptibilities to contagion—we could call being colonized an ‘underlying condition” and certainly a “risk factor.’”

-Dr. Cameron Shriver,
Read more on Native American epidemic experience here

When cholera first arrived in Europe in 1829, the horrific symptoms it caused were so alarming and overwhelming that it was described as the “nineteenth century plague.”


Like plague, cholera followed trade routes out of its reservoir in the Ganges River delta in India into Central Asia and from there into Russia and westward across Europe. By 1832, cholera had spread across all of Europe and, by 1833, the disease crossed the Atlantic to both North and South America.”

-Dr. Jim Harris
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“After Cincinnati’s initial December outbreak, which steadied to a trickle over spring, the cholera erupted in the humid summer of 1849. The city’s German, Irish, and black neighborhoods, blighted with appalling sanitation, suffered extreme mortality. Immigrants were 40% of the population, but according to one contemporary source four times likelier to die than native-born Americans.


Nativist politicians blamed everything from intemperance to crime and prostitution on this “plague of strangers.” Epidemic disease became one more crisis blamed on someone else. In July 1849, one Cincinnatian wrote his wife that 130 fellow citizens had perished the previous day. ‘But do not be alarmed,’ he shrugged. ‘They are mostly German and Irish. Very few whom we knew have died.’”

-Dr. Matthew Smith
Read more about Cincinnati, Cholera, and COVID-19 here!





The 1918

Spanish Flu

“When the first cases of the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic broke out in 1918 during the final year of World War I, the origins of this deadly pandemic were unknown. Contemporary explanations in the Allied nations ranged from fears of a new form of biological warfare to a by-product of trench warfare resulting from the use of mustard gas…The wartime context for the pandemic is especially important: not only did the flu claim more lives than the war itself and prolong the suffering brought about by the First World War, but the pandemic also followed the movement of soldiers around the globe.”

-Dr. Jim Harris,

Read more here!


“[HIV/AIDS] dominant form, HIV-1, has killed 35 million people since 1981 and it has infected roughly the same number again. Nearly 37 million people live with the disease today.


By disabling human immune systems, HIV has also allowed tuberculosis to come thundering back as a global health threat and has reduced life expectancies in many hard-hit countries…


The disease was initially called a “gay cancer” and then Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) in the United States, but it dawned on physicians in Africa that their heterosexual patients had the same disease. The Centers for Disease Control gave the new disease a more neutral name, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), in September 1982.


Where global efforts fell short in stemming the virus early on, the pharmaceutical advancements and global agenda in the past decade, by taking on a more systematic approach, have made enormous advancements in treatment….In eastern Europe and central Asia, however, the numbers of new infections and AIDS-related deaths are still on the rise.”

-Dr. Thomas McDow,

Read more on the global history and response to HIV/AIDS here!



“While most SARS patients experienced “influenza-like” symptoms, severe cases evolved swiftly. These patients experienced severe respiratory distress and required oxygen and mechanical support from intensive care units. By the end of the pandemic in July 2003, 8,098 cases of SARS were reported globally, killing 774 patients. While these numbers are miniscule in comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic, the mysterious nature of SARS in 2003 brought with it a sense of shock—both to the public and to public health officials.”

-Dr. Jim Harris,
Read more here!

“Influenza is one of humanity's most persistent and constant foes—many will get sick each year with some form of flu, some of them will die—but only every so often does a pandemic occur. While it is impossible to prevent influenza, today we are working to reduce the chance of a pandemic and we are learning how to respond more efficiently to pandemics when they hit to avoid mass fatalities.


Influenza, unlike some epidemic diseases, has no magic bullet. As a virus, it is impervious to antibiotics. Anti-virals can help, but they do not cure. So influenza, like many viral illnesses, requires an array of strategies to deal with infection and containment. And it requires no small amount of luck. A century of advancing medical science has given humanity a variety of new weapons to fight the spread of influenza. But each has its limitations.”

-Dr. Anne Sealey,

Read more here!


Avian Flu

Blurred people mingling

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History of the 1918 Flu
-The Center for Disease Control

Humanity's Long History of Making Epidemics Worse

-The Atlantic

What Historians Will See When They Look Back...

-The New York Times