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.