Epidemics Through the Ages

  • 1157 B.C. — Ramses V, Egyptian ruler, dies, apparently from smallpox.
  • 430 B.C. — Disease, probably typhoid fever, after devastating Libya, Ethiopia and Egypt, reaches Athens while Spartan legions were laying siege to the city. Two-thirds of Athenians died, leading to Sparta’s victory.
  • 162 — Roman legions are infected with smallpox while doing battle with Parthians, near present-day Baghdad.
  • 541 — “Pestilence,” aka Bubonic Plague, breaks out in northeastern Egypt.
  • 542 — Pestilence reaches Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, becomes known as “Justinianic plague” after emperor Justinian.
  • 543 — Justinianic plague arrives in the city of Rome; Britain in 544; Constantinople again in 558; Constantinople a third time in 573; Constantinople yet again in 586.
  • 1347 — “The Black Death” lays waste to a third of Europe’s population in four years.
  • 1518 — Smallpox arrives in Hispaniola, probably brought by Spanish, the first “virgin soil epidemic” in the Americas. The disease takes out a third of the indigenous population, easing the way for Spanish conquest.
  • 1606 — The Globe and other London theatres close because of Bubonic Plague. Performances of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Macbeth are postponed. (The Globe burned down in 1613, when a stage-prop cannon misfired. The theatre was rebuilt and reopened a year later. Puritans closed it for good in 1642, because that’s what puritans do.)
  • 1817 — Cholera breaks out in India, near Calcutta. It spreads east to what is now Thailand and west to Oman and as far down as Zanzibar.
  • 1829 — Cholera again. India to Russia, through Europe and the United States.
  • 1916 — The first epidemic of Polio, a disease around for most of human history, breaks out in Brooklyn, New York and spreads from there. New York City suffered two-thousand deaths. Six-thousand died in the U.S. The disease re-emerges in the 1940s and 1950s.
  • 1918 — So-called “Spanish flu” emerges suddenly in U.S., then Europe, then everywhere. Fifty-million people died during the next-year.
  • 1952 — Salk vaccine begins the eradication of Polio. Eight years later, the Sabin oral vaccine virtually wipes out Polio.
  • 1958 — Vaccine begins eradicating smallpox. More than a billion persons died from the disease over the centuries.
  • 2010 — Cholera breaks out in Haiti. Ten months after an earthquake killed 200,000 Haitians, displaced a million more and damaged sanitation infrastructure, sewage dumped in a river by a U.N. peacekeeping base started the epidemic. The infection struck 665,000 persons, 8,183 of whom died.

Click here for a pandemic overview from Elizabeth Kolbert.

In the Days before Purell

“Henry VIII bathed often and changed his undershirts daily, he was a royal rarity.“

Coronavirus has put sanitation into our collective mind. Keep your distance from others; wash your hands; don’t touch your face. Back in the sixteenth century, King Henry VIII (voted “worst monarch” by the Historical Writers Association, had the same worry. His fear of the dreaded sweating sickness caused him to sleep in a different bed every night.

Without warning, a person would be overcome with headache, neck ache, general weakness and a cold sweat covering the entire body. Then came fever, dehydration and heart palpitations. In less than twenty-four hours, half of those afflicted were dead. The infection was blamed on foreigners — sound familiar? — specifically mercenaries Henry’s father had brought to England to help him seize the throne.

Henry VIII
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