Pandemics in History

In this series, Michael Rossi, will explore four pandemics—bubonic plague, cholera, influenza, and HIV-AIDS—that have likewise challenged human beings and transformed the ways that we have lived, worked, loved, and clashed.

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Overview

Today we find ourselves in what seems to be a new historic moment. COVID-19 has not only taken lives, but its menace has spawned profound changes in social and cultural practices across the globe, from wearing facial coverings to social distancing. But coronavirus is not the first pathogen to threaten the human species.

In this series, Michael Rossi, Assistant Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Chicago, will explore four pandemics—bubonic plague, cholera, influenza, and HIV-AIDS—that have likewise challenged human beings and transformed the ways that we have lived, worked, loved, and clashed.

Investigating these historical episodes will offer participants a new vantage point to reflect upon the novelty of our present circumstances, as well as to consider the ways we are traveling well-trodden pathways that have long linked disease to the human experience.

The three plagues that swept across early modern Europe and Asia were not the first instances of epidemic disease in recorded history. But to many observers, they seemed apocalyptic. With their unpredictability, terrible mortality, and devastating economic, social, and cultural impacts, they challenged philosophers and laypeople alike to come up with new explanations for disease, even as society seemed to be collapsing around them. 

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Little known before the nineteenth century, cholera encircled the globe in a series of pandemics that spanned the nineteenth century. In response, communities, municipalities, and nations drew on new medical ideas — not least of all germ theory and sanitation — to defend themselves. This was one of the first times that scientific medicine and political administration had combined to fight epidemic disease, and its practice changed ideas both of “the public” and of “health.”

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By the turn of the twentieth century, the successes of public health and the promises of new vaccines suggested to some observers that modern medicine might, in the not-too-distant future, entirely conquer epidemics. The influenza pandemic of 1918 brought those hopes crashing down, as nations around the world struggled to contain a new, strange, and deadly illness that resonated across the world like a bell. If the 1918 influenza pandemic shattered some naive dreams of medical progress, its deadly passage set the foundation for twentieth century biomedicine.

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The three plagues that swept across early modern Europe and Asia were not the first instances of epidemic disease in recorded history. But to many observers, they seemed apocalyptic. With their unpredictability, terrible mortality, and devastating economic, social, and cultural impacts, they challenged philosophers and laypeople alike to come up with new explanations for disease, even as society seemed to be collapsing around them.

Download the pre-reading for the lecture

Watch the recording

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Speaker

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Michael Rossi

Michael Rossi

Assistant Professor of the History of Medicine in the Department of History

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