How Past Plagues & Pandemics Have Shaped Human History

Previous epidemics have a lot to teach us about the coronavirus and this moment in history. See our curated collection examining how infectious diseases have altered the way people live — and what this means for the future we’re currently facing.

History’s Deadliest Pandemics, from Ancient Rome to Modern America

Michael S. Rosenwald • The Washington Post

A look at how pandemics have remade the world.

Thucydides and the Plague of Athens – What It Can Teach Us Now

Chris Mackie • The Conversation

Thucydides’ account of the plague that struck Athens in 430 B.C. focuses on the social response, both of those who died and those who survived.

What Social Distancing Looked Like in 1666

Annalee Newitz • The New York Times

Humanity has been surviving plagues for thousands of years, and we have managed to learn a lot along the way.

The Yellow Fever Outbreak of 1793: Nine Observations and Lessons

Brian Patrick O’Malley • Journal of the American Revolution

Despite hopes that America in the future would be spared from anything like Philadelphia’s yellow fever outbreak in 1793, particular incidents might remind Americans of the initial public reaction to the 1980s AIDS crisis or the 2020 coronavirus outbreak.

Keep It Clean: The Surprising 130-Year History of Handwashing

Amy Fleming • The Guardian

Until the mid-1800s, doctors didn’t bother washing their hands – they would go from dissecting a cadaver to delivering a child. Then a Hungarian medic made an essential, much-resisted breakthrough.

In 19th-Century America, Fighting Disease Meant Battling Bad Smells

Daniela Blei • Atlas Obscura

The history of unpleasant odor, or miasma, has unexpected relevance in the time of COVID-19.

The Outbreak that Invented Intensive Care

Hannah Wunsch • Nature

A heroic community effort at a daring hospital saved lives, led to today’s ventilators and revolutionized medicine — it holds lessons for our times.

How Infectious Disease Defined the American Bathroom

Elizabeth Yuko • CityLab

Cholera and tuberculosis outbreaks transformed the design and technology of the home bathroom. Will COVID-19 inspire a new wave of hygiene innovation?

What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us

Orhan Pamuk • The New York Times

People have always responded to epidemics by spreading rumor and false information, and portraying the disease as foreign and brought in with malicious intent.

A Historian’s View of the Coronavirus Pandemic and the Influenza of 1918

David Remnick • The New Yorker

John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” discusses what the epidemic can tell us about our current situation and the future.

What We Can Learn From 1918 Influenza Diaries

Meilan Solly • Smithsonian Magazine

These letters and journals offer insights on how to record one’s thoughts amid a pandemic.

Plague Time: Simon Schama on What History Tells Us

Simon Schama • Financial Times

For millennia, epidemics have tested friendships, faith and society. But, amid the horror there is hope.

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