Covid-19 isn’t the first pandemic to upend a society. The history of humanity has been marked by its relationship with disease and the drama of epidemics has long made them a popular subject for historians. Below, in alphabetical order by author name, are some outstanding works on a variety of disease outbreaks, with a bias towards those treating epidemics in the Americas and Europe.
Links are given where Columbia has an e-book version of the work. However, e-versions of many of these titles may also be available commercially.
Barry, John M. The great influenza: the epic story of the deadliest plague in history (New York: Viking, 2004). There are many books on the 1918 influenza epidemic. This work, which tells the story of the epidemic in the U.S., is generally thought to be the most authoritative.
Bazin, H. Vaccination: a history from Lady Montagu to genetic engineering. (Montrouge: J. Libbey Eurotext, c2011) E-version: https://clio.columbia.edu/catalog/14197186. The protection from disease through inoculation (1720s) and then vaccination (1790s) has been one of the most important developments in the history of medicine.
Cantor, Norman F. In the wake of the plague: the Black Death and the world it made. (New York: Free Press, 2001). There are many books on the 14th century’s catastrophic epidemic of bubonic plague and the effect it had on European civilization. This work by Cantor, who was the dean of American medievalists, is a good place to start.
Evans, Richard J. Death in Hamburg: society and politics in the cholera years. (New York: Penguin Books, 2005) [first published 1987] E-version: https://clio.columbia.edu/catalog/8863900. In 1892 a cholera epidemic in Hamburg, Germany, resulted in about 10,000 deaths while the rest of Europe remained unaffected. Evans explains how the city government’s laissez-faire ideology led to catastrophe.
Fenn, Elizabeth A. Pox Americana: the great smallpox epidemic of 1775-82 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001). The drama of the American Revolution has obscured the fact that it was fought in the face of a continent-wide smallpox epidemic. Fenn has brought that story back to our attention.
Harper, Kyle. The fate of Rome: climate, disease, and the end of an empire. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017). Kyle tells a compelling story of how climate change drove evolving disease ecologies which in turn finally dealt a death blow to the ancient world’s Greco-Roman civilization. A sobering read.
Kolata, Gina. Flu: the story of the great influenza pandemic of 1918 and the search for the virus that caused it. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999). Kolata also tells the story of the 1918 flu pandemic but is primarily interested in the scientific pursuit of the virus decades later through the DNA analysis of the remains of flu victims.
Markel, Howard. Quarantine! : East European Jewish immigrants and the New York City epidemics of 1892. (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) E-version: https://clio.columbia.edu/catalog/8863062. How do societal prejudices shape what seem to be dispassionate “scientific” decisions? Markel’s account of the US cholera outbreak of 1892 and its effect on New York City’s rapidly expanding population of East European Jews is of more than strictly historical interest
McNeill, William Hardy. Plagues and peoples. (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976), 2nd edition, 1998 E-version: https://clio.columbia.edu/catalog/8862984. McNeill was one of the great historians of the 20th century. This seminal work on disease in history spans from Neolithic times to the late 20th century. Remarkably concise – the paperback version comes in at 353 pages with notes – this has become one of the most influential works on the interaction of humanity and disease.
Oshinsky, David M. Polio: an American story (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) E-version: https://clio.columbia.edu/catalog/14149902. Oshinsky’s history of recurrent 20th century polio epidemics and the resulting efforts to find a vaccine is a page turner and won him the Pulitzer Prize.
Powell, J. H. Bring out your dead: the great plague of yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993) [originally published 1949]. A classic account of one of the most terrifying epidemics in American history.
Rosenberg, Charles E. The cholera years: the United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) [first edition, 1962] Cholera was one of the deadliest diseases of the 19th century – it’s thought to have killed 20,000 Parisians (out of a population of 650,000) in 1831-32 – and did much to spur public health measures. Rosenberg’s account of the disease in the U.S. is one of the classic works of the social history of medicine and is still in print more than fifty years after its first publication. Remarkably, this originated as author’s Columbia University doctoral thesis.
Willrich, Michael. Pox: an American history (New York: Penguin Press, 2011). Unlike what you might expect from the title, Willrich’s book focuses on the early 20th century Progressive movement’s response to threats to public health and the pushback that created from anti-vaccine advocates – setting off a civil liberties debate that continues today.
Above: Penitential procession during the 14th century’s Black Death, from K.O. Meinsma, De Zwarte Dood, 1347-1352 (Zutphen: W.J. Thieme, 1924)