A History of Epidemics

By Tim Lambert

Early Epidemics

At different times in history, terrible pandemics have swept parts of the world killing millions of people. The best known is the Black Death of the 14th century but epidemics were nothing new in Europe. In 430 BC Athens was struck by an epidemic of an unknown disease, which devastated the city.

In 165-180 AD, the Roman Empire was struck by another disease, probably either smallpox or measles. In 251 there was another pandemic in the Roman Empire again probably smallpox.

In the 6th century AD bubonic plague struck and killed millions. In 543 AD it struck the Byzantine Empire and it soon spread to other parts of Europe. The 6th-century plague may have killed 25% of the population. It certainly claimed the lives of millions.

Perhaps the most famous pandemic of all time is the Black Death. It broke out in Crimea in 1346 and soon spread across Europe. The Black Death broke out at the worst possible time. In the early 14th century, the climate of the earth was growing colder. Global cooling was disastrous. It brought famine and poverty and the population was falling even before the plague struck.

However, it was decimated by the Black Death. It first reached England in 1348. It was first reported in Dorset in August and over the following months, it ravaged the British Isles. About one-third of the population died. In total, perhaps 25 million people died from the Black Death.

It is believed there were 2 types of plague. Flea bites from fleas that normally lived on rats spread bubonic plague. The first symptom was lumping in the armpits or groin. Death usually came within 4 or 5 days. (However, not everyone who caught bubonic plague died, a minority survived).

Plague doctor

There was also a more deadly disease, pneumonic plague, which was spread by people coughing. As well as buboes patients suffered fever and coughed blood. They usually died within 2 days. Although the 1348-49 outbreak was the worst plague returned to towns and cities in Europe for centuries. In England, the most famous outbreak was the plague in London in 1665 but in fact, the plague struck London and other English towns at irregular intervals from the 15th century to the 17th century. Fortunately, the 1665 epidemic was the last.

In continental Europe, the plague lasted longer. In Western Europe, the last outbreak of plague was in southern France between 1720 and 1722. Towns like Marseilles and Toulon were devastated. In Eastern Europe, Kyiv in Ukraine suffered a severe outbreak in 1770. The last serious outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe was in Moscow in 1771.

Modern Epidemics

Meanwhile, plague also struck the Middle East. There it continued to claim many lives until the 19th century. Istanbul had an outbreak of plague in 1841 and it struck Egypt in 1845. There were less serious outbreaks of plague in Egypt in the early 20th century.

Meanwhile, serious outbreaks of plague occurred in China until the 1930s. India also suffered severely from the plague in the early 20th century.

There was an outbreak of bubonic plague in the poor parts of n in 1900, which killed 103 people. A man named Robert Sutherland Thompson was put in charge of the situation. In 1898 a Frenchman working in India called Paul-Louis Simond had suggested that bubonic plague was transmitted by fleas that live on rats but his theory gained few supporters. One of them was Thompson. He carried out careful observations of the epidemic in Sydney, which proved the Frenchman’s theory was correct.

Meanwhile, in 1897 the first vaccine against bubonic plague was used. n After 1492 smallpox and measles were introduced into North and South America. The Native Americans had no resistance to these European diseases and vast numbers of them died. The population was devastated. (In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries there were epidemics of smallpox in Europe too but the effects were much less serious). From the end of the 18th century, European diseases were introduced into Australia and they killed huge numbers of the indigenous people.

Bubonic plague was declining rapidly in the early 20th century but in 1918 a new pandemic swept the world – influenza! It began in August 1918 and improved communications meant it quickly spread around the world. It is not known exactly how many people died because record-keeping was disrupted by war in many countries.

However, a conservative estimate is 22 million deaths – more than were killed by the fighting in the First World War! In the late 20th century the world faced another pandemic – AIDS. Fortunately, treatment for AIDS has greatly improved.

The latest pandemic was Covid-19, which first appeared in China at the end of 2019. Subsequently, it spread across the world causing the deaths of several million people.