“There are observances necessary for a healthy man to employ during a pestilence,” advised the first-century Roman medical writer Aulus Cornelius Celsus, “although in spite of them, one cannot be secure.” Best of all is “to go abroad, take a voyage. When this cannot be, to be carried in a litter, walk in the open before the heat of the day, gently, and to be anointed in like manner.”
“People think this pandemic is an accident,” wrote Nassim Nicholas Taleb in May 2020 of the Covid-19 crisis. “It is not. It is part of the system we have built. When you read the history of England, Italy, and the Middle East, you read of frequent quarantines and lockdowns because of sieges and plagues. These were built into the economic landscape and into the costs of every merchant. So the cost of the pandemic and future pandemics should be set against gross domestic product figures.
According to Thucydides, before the plague of Athens, the Athenians were divided over whether the disaster predicted by an oracle would be a limos (famine) or a loimos (plague). “In the case of unwritten prophecies,” wrote one classicist, “it would be impossible to determine which word the speaker meant to use. The ambiguity of the sound would have been its chief recommendation to the soothsayer.”
The bark of Cinchona trees (from which quinine is obtained) was first described as a remedy for malaria by Jesuit missionaries in Peru. Protestant hostility toward Jesuits, however, led to a distrust of “Peruvian bark” in England. An apothecary’s apprentice named Robert Talbor warned patients to “beware of all palliative cures and especially that known by the name of Jesuits’ powder,” instead offering his own secret remedy. His treatment was highly effective, earning him a fortune.
In the late eighteenth century, yellow fever was widespread in the Caribbean; case-fatality rates among British troops there were as high as 70 percent. The fate of French troops sent to Saint-Domingue to suppress a slave rebellion was even worse. “Evidence suggests the troops were actually an expeditionary force with intentions to invade North America through New Orleans and to establish a major holding in the Mississippi valley,” wrote the authors of a 2013 scholarly paper.
Although many New York City theaters closed during the influenza pandemic of 1918, Broadway’s Plymouth Theater went ahead with its October 3 premiere of Leo Tolstoy’s Redemption. Frustrated by the audience’s coughing at one performance, lead actor John Barrymore returned to the stage after intermission and threw a “fair-sized sea bass” into the crowd, shouting, “Busy yourselves with this, you damned walruses!”
In May 2020 a preliminary staff report of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York looked at several historical data sets from Germany and concluded that influenza mortality in 1918–20 caused significant societal change in the subsequent decade. Influenza deaths were associated with lower per-capita spending, especially on services consumed by the young, and were correlated with the share of votes for extremist parties in the elections of 1932 and 1933.
Around 1500 bc, the Hittite augur Maddunani sacrificed to the gods one goat kid, one piglet, and one puppy in an attempt to end an epidemic that had devastated the army. While puppies played “an extensive, and apparently vital” role in Hittite ritual, wrote historian Billie Jean Collins, “this is the only case in Hittite ritual of puppies being killed as an offering.”
In 1942 a contaminated yellow-fever vaccine caused an outbreak of hepatitis B among more than 300,000 U.S. Army and Allied troops. Nearly 50,000 clinical cases resulted from the contamination, including 29,000 incidents of overt jaundice. There had been medical evidence of postvaccination epidemics of hepatitis in both men and horses since 1885.
In 1890 Russian botanist Dmitri Ivanovsky was commissioned to study a disease destroying tobacco plants in Crimea. Filtering the sap from affected plants, Ivanovsky discovered in 1892 the presence of a small parasitic microorganism invisible under great magnification—a virus—which he thought was a minuscule bacterium. In 1898 Dutch microbiologist Martinus W. Beijerinck became the first person to recognize viruses as reproducing entities distinct from other organisms.
During the 1679 plague of Vienna, a drunken balladeer named Marx Augustin passed out in a gutter. Gravediggers, mistaking him for dead, carried him beyond the city walls and threw him and his bagpipes into a pit filled with the bodies of plague victims. Upon waking the next day, Augustin was unable to get out of the mass grave. He played his bagpipes and was eventually rescued. “Ach, du Lieber Augustin,” a defiant song of loss based on his misadventure, remains a favorite in Vienna today.
During the fifth century, the body of a ten-year-old child was buried in the Umbrian town of Lugnano with a rock inside its mouth. The practice was part of a folk custom intended to prevent corpses from turning into vampires and infecting the living with malaria. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said the lead archaeologist who uncovered the skeleton in 2018.
In 1978 Janet Parker, a medical photographer at the UK’s Birmingham Medical School, worked one floor above the microbiology department, where smallpox research was being conducted. She became ill on August 11 but was not diagnosed with smallpox until nine days later. A subsequent investigation concluded Parker had been infected either through the building’s duct system or by visiting the microbiology department. She died on September 11, 1978, becoming the last known person to die of smallpox.
According to a notoriously unreliable late Roman biography, the emperor Hadrian established special hours in the public baths for exclusive use by the ill. “If we assume that the report is not an invention of the author,” wrote historian Garrett G. Fagan, “it suggests that prior to Hadrian’s ruling, the sick and healthy had bathed simultaneously as a matter of course.”