Disease, Mortality, and Lessons from History

Monday Morning Musings

“Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all: the conscientious historian will correct these defects.”

–Herodotus, The History of Herodotus

“The forms of diseases are many and the healing of them is manifold.”

— Hippocrates

I’ve been thinking about the intersection of disease and history. Stay with me here–both subjects have been much in the news. The word “history” comes from the ancient Greek word meaning inquiry or investigation. Historians investigate a variety of materials, and then we evaluate, interpret them using the available facts (which often change over time), and chronicle them. History is not a science, but science has its history.

The current outbreaks of measles here in the United States and elsewhere can be examined through a historical lens, as well as through scientific ones. For example, my own history: I had the measles, chicken pox, and many other childhood diseases because I was born before there were vaccines. According to one report, there were 102 reported cases of measles in the United States, in fourteen different states, that are linked to one outbreak in California. (See this.) As a child, I did receive the oral polio vaccine. Due to the effectiveness of that and subsequent vaccines, polio has nearly been eradicated.

As of January 2015, no new cases of polio have been seen in Nigeria or Syria, where there were cases found last year, but the disease still exists in the wild in Pakistan. This is a disease that can be eradicated. What many people do not realize is that one case of a disease such as polio can cause an epidemic. According to the World Health Organization:

“Despite the progress achieved since 1988, as long as a single child remains infected with polio virus, children in all countries are at risk of contracting the disease. The polio virus can easily be imported into a polio-free country and can spread rapidly amongst unimmunized populations. Failure to eradicate polio could result in as many as 200, 000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world.”

World Health Organization. 2014

Polio cannot be cured, but it can be prevented through proper vaccination.

Measles can also be eradicated. Many young doctors have never seen actual cases of the disease because the vaccine is so effective. One could divide history in the United States into a before vaccination for childhood illnesses and a post vaccinations period. Look back at family histories—how many children were lost to not only diseases such as polio and measles, but also scarlet fever, whooping cough, and others? Measles can cause severe complications, and the disease can also be fatal. There is NO scientific link between measles vaccines and autism. There is no debate about the efficacy of vaccines. Some children cannot be vaccinated because they have cancer, allergies, or auto-immune problems, but parents who choose not to vaccinate healthy children put not only their children at risk of getting the disease, but also help to spread the disease to others.

Epidemics have changed the course of human life and events. Most people probably know of the plague, the “Black Death” that occurred throughout the world in waves in the mid-fourteenth century–and killed millions of people. Fleas carry the plague bacterium. Many have theorized that rats harbored the plague-ridden fleas over decades, which caused the epidemics to break out in waves of plague throughout the mid-to-later part of the fourteenth century.

Some scientists now believe that Asian gerbils brought the disease to Europe. By examining tree rings, the scientists determined that weather conditions in Europe during plague outbreaks were not particularly conducive to rats. However, whenever the weather was favorable to gerbils and fleas in central Asia, the plague bacteria appeared a few years later in European harbor towns, and then spread across Europe. Of course, anyone who has ever had to deal with fleas brought in my pets or people, knows that they easily hop to new warm bodies, so carrier fleas once introduced into new locations, could jump to mice, rats, cats, dogs, livestock, and people. Rats are not off the hook, but the black plague of the fourteenth century may not have originated with them. (See an article about the study here.)

After the fourteenth century, the plague periodically reappeared. In England, the Great Plague of 1665 is perhaps the next most famous plague period, but there were others. I came across this story about plague graffiti left in churches. The article features a bit of graffiti: the names Cateryn, Jane and Amee Maddyngley that were inscribed on the wall of a church in Cambridgeshire after the plague of 1515 broke out in London and spread to the south and east.

Although it is sad to think of the deaths and the survivor who wrote the names of these three sisters, I had immediate questions. First, an observation–how cool is it that there is church graffiti survey! Then I wondered who had left the graffiti. And why? Was it simply a memorial? Was there more? Did the survivor feel guilty? Was it a brother? Of course, the other obvious thought was that he or she (but probably more likely he) was literate, and I wondered about literacy in this 16th century English village. The article says the family was likely tenant farmers, which encompasses a great economic range. Perhaps the unknown graffiti artist attended one of the grammar schools that were established at this time. Because it’s unlikely that whoever left this graffiti left a record saying so, we will probably never know who inscribed these names, or most other church graffiti. But it is so interesting.

This is part of what makes the study of history fascinating and relevant. One can look at an event—the outbreak of plague in London in 1515–and from there follow all sorts of historical paths. It can lead to studies of epidemics, village life, family life, class, church history, agricultural history, and education, among others.

Recently in United States, some politicians have tried make the teaching of history in public schools fit their ideas of what should be taught, whether it is accurate or not. Some have attempted to rewrite or censor textbooks. Recently, Representative Daniel Fisher of Oklahoma introduced House Bill 1380 in the state to prohibit teaching the US History Advance Placement course there, unless it was changed to fit his ideas of what should be included in such a course. He and others who support him believe the AP US History course is not patriotic enough. Mr. Fisher lacks understanding of both the AP Course and US History. AP courses are designed to be similar to a first year college course. Students are expected to not merely memorize facts, but to investigate and analyze material, including a variety of primary texts. His version of required documents for US History included the Ten Commandments and the Magna Carta. The Ten Commandments should absolutely be studied—in a course on world culture or religions. The Magna Carta is important for a course in English history or government. Despite his desire to rewrite the past and influence the present, however, the United States is not and has never been a Christian nation, and “the Founding Fathers” were not all devout Christians. (See this.)

I agree that students—indeed all Americans—should be familiar with such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but how does it detract from the significance of these documents to know that many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveholders? Good and bad things have happened in the United States, and students should be aware of them. They should know that along with fighting for freedom during World War II, the United States also interred thousands of Japanese Americans. This is part of our history. Political documents, like works of art, are richer for knowing and understanding the context in which they were created. The Founding Fathers did not live in a bubble. They had wives, families, servants, and slaves. They suffered from chronic diseases and were often in pain. It is also important to know about the lives of the less famous, and to understand the context into which both famous and unknown people lived their lives.*

If we are to understand the past—or at least to make educated guesses–then we need to know about more than kings and presidents, the wealthy and educated. To understand the past, we need to examine its rats, fleas, and dirt, along with its shining surfaces, palaces, and plantations. We need to appreciate the devastation of an epidemic, as well as the glory of gaining independence. We need to look at the graffiti and scribbles, as well as the portraits and treatises.


Next week, my new Monday Morning Musings history blog post will return to more familiar and delicious territory. But so I don’t leave you without mentioning food, here’s a report of an exhibit that used cake to depict disease. Look if you dare!

Also, two wonderful historical novels that focus on plague in England: Connie Willis, Doomsday Book, which also involves time travel. It’s one of my favorite books. Geraldine Brooks’s novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, is based on a true story of a village in England that was struck by the plague in 1666. It is elegant and heartbreaking. I seem to remember reading it in one sitting, and crying.

*My World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO) should be out in September, at least that is what Amazon tells me!  It is full of information about things that Representative Fisher probably thinks are totally irrelevant.


14 thoughts on “Disease, Mortality, and Lessons from History

  1. I always appreciate when you speak in your historical voice. After all you are an historian and I like to learn new things. Very well researched, Merril.

    “History is not a science, but science has its history” an interesting way to put it. I did click on the church graffiti link. The phrase seems almost like an oxymoron to me. Very interesting . . .

    I note that you say that the United States is not and never has been a Christian nation, and I agree. However, some say our nation has been built on Judeo-Christian principles, based on wording in the Constitution and other documents. What do you think?

    • I suppose it depends on what one means by Judeo-Christian principles. That’s kind of vague. Many of the ideas in setting up the government came from concepts of natural law and the idea of a social contract, and I believe those origins go back to ancient Greece and Rome, not the bible. I am not an expert on this. Biblical practices did include slavery, polygamy, stoning, etc. If one is talking about morality, then certainly that is not something that comes only from Judeo-Christian beliefs. And of course, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion. George Washington declared the United States was a nation that tolerated all who were good citizens in his letter to the Touro Synagogue in 1790. He did quote a phrase from the bible. Does that men the nation is based on Judeo-Christian principles? I don’t think so. I think it means Washington was a man of his time. http://www.tourosynagogue.org/history-learning/gw-letter

  2. Merril, I have been kind of “down” lately about how ignored history is today–and how we are already repeating old mistakes because people just don’t know . . . much of anything. I don’t know if I ever mentioned this, but one of my undergrad majors was history and then I was a history grad student (my specialty was shaping up as the Reformation) for a short period of time. It is disturbing that it is the most ignored subject by most students today. Or am I wrong about that? Anyway, to your subject, I read that the other day about the gerbils. It makes me sad not only for all the people who died because of that and other epidemics, but that humans have been blaming rats for centuries for the Plague. I understand about them not being off the hook, but then neither are human carrriers and other animals. When I do genealogical research I try to keep in mind that I need to search for epidemics in order to put the deaths of children, in particular, in context.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Luanne. I didn’t know you had been a history major. I honestly don’t know if students ignore history or not. It was never a favorite subject for my daughters, but they both love literature and theater, so there’s that. 🙂 I so love that you do so much genealogical research. I want to do more in my own family, but somehow never seem to get to it. I feel like I lost so many opportunities to hear family stories because my grandparents and great aunts and uncles are all gone now. On the plus side, my mom has told my daughters stories that she never told me, or some that I’ve only recently heard.

  3. What a fascinating post. Being an American studies student (literature but we did study common courses) but no from the US I was somewhat concerned when during my year abroad some lecturers would tell me I had a better understanding of some issues that students from the country. I remember discussing once ‘Invisible Man’ and none of the students from the States seemed to be aware that there had existed ever a Communist Party in the US. Thanks for your information about the gerbils. Being a doctor I couldn’t agree more about your comments on measles.

  4. WOW! I agree with every word you said, and I LOVE that you said it! This is SUCH a pet peeve of mine (people that won’t vaccinate their kids), and being as my kids and I are Autistic, I can’t stand when people try to blame autism on vaccines. By the way, those cake were a hoot! 😉

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