Jan 05th, 2021

Pandemics Past: History’s Most Notorious Plagues

-blog post by Melinda Pennington, Evening Reference Librarian

Pandemics have plagued humans from the beginning of time.  The very existence of humans living in communities among other humans and animals nearly guarantees that people will get sick from communicable and pervasive diseases. America and North Carolina have not been immune to many of those disease outbreaks from their very beginnings.

From ancient times through the 19th Century, most epidemics were caused by bacteria from exposure to contaminated water, food, or animal borne parasites.  Bubonic plague, cholera, and typhoid fever are prime examples.  After the development of better sanitation and modern medicines like penicillin, pandemics developed through viruses that spread person to person or animal to person.  Influenza, polio, HIV, and viral hemorrhagic fever are examples that still survive in parts of the world.

New York City children wait in line
for immunization shots, c. 1944.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.

One of the first recorded epidemics in North America occurred when a  sailor infected with smallpox sailed into Boston harbor aboard the H.M.S. Seahorse in 1721.  He had infected most of his shipmates and at least one other person before the town realized the problem and began quarantining residents.  By that time it had already spread through churches, shops, and homes.  Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister and member of the science-oriented British Royal Society, suggested they try inoculation of smallpox virus, which had been successful in eastern Europe. Ironically, the doctors of Boston fought against the practice, while the clergy thought it might be helpful.  By the end of the year, nearly ten percent of the population had died and around fifty percent of infected people recovered but had long term repercussions from the disease.  Around 250 people were inoculated, with only six succumbing to the disease.  The outcome became one of the first debates between science and religion in our country (Williams, 15).

yellow fever
Death as a sailor
bringing Yellow Fever
to New York, c.1864.
Frank Leslie’s
Illustrated Newspaper.

Yellow fever came to the Americas from West Africa during the slave trade beginning in the early 17th century.  Transmitted through mosquitoes, it hit major ports along the Atlantic, predominantly Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.  In 1793 in Philadelphia, it affected the newly formed government and began heated debate over how epidemics spread. Arguments over the merits of quarantining versus sanitation ensued with little resolve. Yellow fever struck again during the Civil War with both southern and northern troops succumbing to the disease.  When federal troops took over New Orleans, which had been ravaged by the disease, General Benjamin Butler enforced a strict quarantine and had soldiers clean the streets (Humphreys). 

Tuberculosis is another disease that spread rapidly across the globe in the 19th and 20th centuries.  It was not until the late 1800’s when Robert Koch isolated the bacteria causing tuberculosis that the medical community began to understand how it spread from exposure to coughing or sneezing from an infected person. At the turn of the century, it is believed that eighty percent of the U.S. population under age twenty was infected and it was the leading cause of death.  The only remedy was to isolate those infected in “sanatoriums”.  Even today with antibiotics and vaccinations, tuberculosis is still present, although not as deadly as it once was (Davidson).

U.S. Army Camp Hospital No. 45,
Aix-Les-Bains, France,
Influenza Ward No. 1. C.1918.
Courtesy National Park Service.

In the 20th century, the most prominent pandemic to occur was the influenza outbreak of 1918 that resulted from infected World War I soldiers returning home from the war. Lasting for two years in four waves, it infected nearly 500 million people worldwide and even though record keeping at the time was minimal, perhaps 20-25 million died from the virus. In the U.S., around 25 million became infected, with a death rate between 500,000-800,000. And surprisingly,  more than fifty percent of the deaths were between the ages of 20 and 40.  Even some of those who survived suffered complications.  Encephalitis lethargica or “sleeping sickness” affected nearly five million people who had survived the Spanish flu.  This was a neurological problem that left victims with high fevers, coma-like sleeping disorders, and movement impairments that would now be considered pre-Parkinson’s disease complications.  Oliver Sacks recounted the study of this phenomena in his book, “Awakenings”, which would later be made into a movie.

In the last century, other viruses and diseases have plagued the world such as polio and HIV/AIDS. According to the North Carolina History Project, North Carolina was hit hardest by polio in the 1940’s, with the worst year being 1948 when over 2500 children were stricken with the disease and 143 died. The town of Hickory was so hard hit that it was nicknamed “Polio City” (Koon).

Rare photograph of Roosevelt in
a wheelchair, with Ruthie Bie and Fala
(1941). Wikipedia.com images.

Probably the most famous person to have been a victim of polio was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, in 1921,contracted “infantile paralysis” at the age of 39. His struggle with polio brought the disease heightened public awareness, and his efforts to help sufferers eventually led to the founding of the March of Dimes, an organization that played a pivotal role in the eventual development of viable vaccines (Turner).

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is believed to have developed in the early 20th century when the virus passed from primates to humans on the African continent.  It wasn’t until the 1980’s that researchers began to see the mysterious virus spreading around the globe. Spread through body fluids, there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS and more than a million people die worldwide.  As treatments and therapeutic remedies continue to improve, however, more people are living longer with the disease.

As we struggle to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to remember that humans have been struggling with bacteria and viruses since time began. We will get through this crisis with the help of science and perseverance, but it is good to look back to see how far we have come.  


Further Reading















Short List of Sources

Davidson, Tish, et al. “Tuberculosis.” Gale Encyclopedia of Public Health, 1st edition, 2013. Credo Reference, https://libproxy.highpoint.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/galegph/tuberculosis/0?institutionId=2970. Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.

Humphreys, Margaret. “Yellow Fever.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of the History of American Science, Medicine, and Technology, edited by Hugh Richard Slotten, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1st edition, 2014. Credo Reference, https://libproxy.highpoint.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/ouposmat/yellow_fever/0?institutionId=2970. Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.

Koon, David J.  “Polio in North Carolina”. North Carolina History Project. John Locke Foundation, 2016, https://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/polio-in-north-carolina/.  Accessed 17 Dec., 2020.

Turner, Julie. “Polio.” Global Social Issues: An Encyclopedia, edited by Christopher G. Bates, and James Ciment, Routledge, 1st edition, 2013. Credo Reference, https://libproxy.highpoint.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/sharpesi/polio/0?institutionId=2970. Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.

Williams, Tony J.. America’s Beginnings : The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/highpoint-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1043754.

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