20 of History's Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics

Steve - March 1, 2019

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
“How Well The Corn Prospered”, depicting Tisquantum, colloquially known as “Squanto”. By Kali Works (c. 1911). Wikimedia Commons.

11. In the years directly preceding the arrival of English settlers aboard the Mayflower, the indigenous population of New England was all but destroyed as a result of infectious outbreaks of a European disease

A classic example of a “virgin soil epidemic”, in which “the populations at risk have had no previous contact with the diseases that strike them and are therefore immunologically almost defenseless”, the years prior to English arrival in New England saw the indigenous population of New England suffer one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in history. Between 1616 and 1619, the Wampanoag, inhabitants of modern-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island, were decimated in what was later proclaimed by early English settlers as divine intervention to cleanse the land prior to white arrival on the continent.

Originally thought to have been smallpox, although now suggested to have been a form of leptospirosis, the illness was introduced to the indigenous tribes by contact with French traders to the north. Resulting in a mortality rate close to guaranteed, with no viable medical treatment available, it is estimated that population losses were in excess of ninety percent. One should not entirely absolve European colonists of responsibility, however, for viral outbreaks in the Americas. Some, notably the deliberate use of smallpox as a biological weapon against indigenous peoples during the Siege of Fort Pitt in 1763, were purposeful acts of unquestionable genocide.

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
Piazza S. Babila, Milan, during the plague of 1630. By Melchiorre Gherardini (c. 1630). Wikimedia Commons.

10. Lasting only a couple of years, the Great Plague of Milan was responsible for the deaths of millions and the downfall of Venice as a leading power of Europe

One of the later major appearances of the disease, the Italian Plague of 1629-1631, also known as the Great Plague of Milan, was a series of outbreaks of bubonic plague that spread across northern and central Italy. Believed to have been initially transported to the city of Mantua in 1629 by German and French soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years’ War, the opposing Venetian forces contracted the disease and carried it with them into central Italy during their retreat. By 1630, the plague had reached Venice, Bologna, and Florence, and even reached as far south as Rome and Naples in the 1650s.

Decimating the populations of Italy, public health measures including quarantines proved only so effective. Between 1630 and 1631, Milan suffered an estimated 60,000 deaths out of a population of 130,000, Verona 33,000 from a total of just 54,000, whilst Florence lost twelve percent of its population. Venice, suffering losses of 46,000 from an approximate total of 140,000, demonstrates the knock-on effect of disease epidemics. The city, a major commercial and political center of Europe prior to the outbreak, proved unable to sustain its might and gradually drifted into obscurity as other powers surpassed it.

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
The Great Plague of London in 1665; author and date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

9. The Great Plague of London, which was followed by the Great Fire of London eighteen months later, culled around one-quarter of the poorer inhabitants of London in just eighteen months

The Great Plague of London, lasting from 1665 to 1666, was the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in England. Lasting just eighteen months the plague is estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of approximately 100,000 people, amounting to almost one-quarter of the total population of London. Carried, as was typical of bubonic plague, by infected rat fleas, the outbreak was thwarted, inadvertently, by the onset of the Great Fire of London in September 1666. The resultant conflagration destroyed ninety percent of London houses, helping to cleanse the city of the pandemic ravaging it.

Unlike other previous pandemics, the Great Plague atypically affected mostly the poor. London, with a population of around 400,000, was more than twelve times larger than the next most populous city of England: Norwich. When the outbreak started, the wealthy retreated to their country estates whilst the poor, crammed into shanty towns with no sanitation, were left to rot. In the years prior to the Great Plague, outbreaks in the slums were not uncommon, with 30,000 deaths in 1603, 35,000 in 1625, and 10,000 in 1636. Worse still, with the exodus of the rich, as Samuel Pepys recorded, ” in Westminster, there is never a physician and but one apothecary left”.

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
A hospital in Vienna during the plague; author unknown (c. 1679). Wikimedia Commons.

8. The Great Plague of Vienna, part of a wider pandemic across Europe during the late-17th century, killed tens of thousands in the imperial city alone

The Great Plague of Vienna, striking the imperial city of the House of Habsburg in 1679 in a manner reminiscent of its London predecessor a decade earlier, was a crippling recurrence of the bubonic plague. Vienna, suffering persistently from periodic outbreaks ever since the first emergence of the bubonic plague in the fourteenth century due to its position as a trading hub, like many others so-afflicted was crippled by the epidemic. Claiming an estimated 76,000 inhabitants, doctors treated patients with the unscientific method of bloodletting before depositing the deceased in open-air pits exposing the wider population to greater infection.

Although memorialized as “of Vienna”, the city’s outbreak was merely one of a far larger epidemic across the neighboring regions. Caught at an intersection of the disease, infected from the West after earlier outbreaks there and from the East by trade routes from the source, several urban centers of Europe endured similar torments. Prague buried approximately 83,000 residents, the city of Halle in Germany lost almost half its population, whilst Dresden, Cologne, and Magdeburg, among other settlements, experienced their own plague outbreaks. It was not until 1707 that the epidemic subsided and disappeared from Germany at large.

 

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
Illustration of the Great Plague in Danzig 1709, by Samuel Donnet (c. the late 1720s/early 1730s). Wikimedia Commons.

7. Accompanying the Great Northern War, a plague outbreak obliterated the populations of several Eastern European cities and reduced national populations dramatically

The Great Northern War (1700-1721), fought between a Russian led confederacy against the Swedish Empire, was accompanied, as many conflicts were, with an outbreak of plague. Peaking between 1708-1712, the pandemic is believed to have entered Europe via Constantinople before spreading to eventually afflict a region spanning Central Asia to the Mediterranean. Provoking a hysterical response among contemporaries, unable to comprehend the cause and nature of transmission, quarantine protocols were instituted. Entire cities, including for example Königsberg, were isolated and plague houses became tantamount to death sentences.

Although the last major plague outbreak to affect the Circum-Baltic region, it registered among perhaps the worst since the Black Death itself. Whilst some regions and cities endured comparatively unscathed, with Hamburg, for instance, suffering nine to ten thousand fatalities equating to only ten to fifteen percent of the population, others, especially settlements in Prussia, were less fortunate. Malmö suffered losses of thirty to forty percent, Stockholm in excess of one-third, whilst Tallinn, Gdansk, and Riga suffered casualties exceed two-thirds of their population. In total it is estimated approximately 150,000 people were killed during just the peak years of the outbreak.

 

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
The Arch Street wharf, where the first cases of yellow fever were identified. By William Birch (c. 1800). Wikimedia Commons.

6. Introduced via French refugees fleeing a slave rebellion, the city of Philadelphia was rendered anarchic by an epidemic of Yellow Fever in 1793

In the spring of 1793, two thousand French refugees from the colony of Cap Français, Saint-Domingue, arrived in Philadelphia fleeing an on-going slave revolution on the island of Hispaniola. Unintentionally carrying individuals already infected with yellow fever, as well as a host of mosquitoes, by the autumn their arrival had triggered the first yellow fever outbreak for more than thirty years. Instigating a mass exodus from the temporary capital city of fifty thousand residents, the United States government, including President Washington, abandoned the city, and within six weeks more than twenty thousand people had fled into the surrounding countryside.

Peaking in October, almost 5,000 deaths were registered with yellow fever as the cause of death across a fourteen week period. Eventually, with winter incoming, the November frosts eradicated the imported mosquitoes and naturally ended the surging epidemic. The crisis exposed serious social cracks in American society, however, with neighboring settlements, panicked by the outbreak, denying aid or assistance to Philadelphians en masse resulting in a humanitarian disaster. Furthermore, blacks were enlisted in the inaccurate belief they were naturally immune to remove the bodies of the infected, resulting in racially disparate rates of contraction.

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
“View of Fort William done after the painting in the Court Room of the Company’s house in Leaden Hall Street”, by Elisha Kirkall (c. 1735). Wikimedia Commons.

5. The first pandemic outbreak of cholera, the early 19th century saw the deadly infection plague cities throughout Asia on a scale never before seen

The First Cholera Pandemic, also known as the First Asiatic Cholera Pandemic, was an outbreak of the eponymous infection between 1817 and 1824. Beginning in the Indian city of Calcutta, which had long endured the effects of the deadly infection, for the first time a cholera epidemic spread throughout Asia and beyond to reach an unprecedented range of victims. Reaching Siam by March 1820, in May of the same year Bangkok and Manila became affected. The spring of 1821 saw Java, Oman, and China struck, whilst in 1822 Japan, the Persian Gulf, and the Caucuses were afflicted, and the choleric pandemic even reached Mauritius in 1823.

Affecting the soldiers of the British Empire, these personnel were intimately involved in the widespread transmission of the infection. Transporting the epidemic overland and by sea, the inter-connectivity of the imperial possessions played a huge role in elevating cholera to pandemic status. Whilst, due to the lack of official records, formal death tolls are difficult to calculate, it has been estimated that the outbreak was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Bangkok suffered at least 30,000 fatalities, whilst in Semarang, on the island of Java, at least 1,225 died across just eleven days in April 1821 from cholera.

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
‘Emigrants Leave Ireland’, an engraving by Henry Doyle (c. 1868). Wikimedia Commons.

4. An inevitable product of mass migrations of desperate humans, the Great Famine, and the Irish exodus precipitated a typhus epidemic in North America in 1847

Caused by the mass Irish exodus as a result of the Great Famine, during which more than a million Irish emigrated, the typhus epidemic of 1847 afflicted the northern half of the East Coast of North America. Packing migrants aboard over-crowded and disease-ridden ships, known colloquially as “coffin ships”, these transports became ideal breeding grounds for the resultant epidemic. Many of these cities were unprepared for the influx of people, infected or otherwise, and struggled under the sudden burden. Quarantine areas were instituted once it became apparent many migrants were infectious, resulting in “fever sheds” being constructed.

The city of Montreal, a popular destination for Irish immigrants, saw between 3,500 and 6,000 of said migrants die as a result of typhus. Many, however, died arguably unnecessarily, packed into twenty-two tiny quarantine sheds, lacking appropriate medical care, and surrounded by armed guards to prevent their escape. In total, more than 20,000 inhabitants of Canada died between 1847 and 1848 from typhus. Equally, the fledgling United States was similarly affected. The arrival of Irish immigrants in New York City triggered an outbreak of typhus, with a mortality rate of at least eleven percent over a period of seven weeks.

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
The January 12, 1890, edition of the satirical magazine Le Grelot, depicting an influenza sufferer followed a parade of hysterical hangers-on. By Pépin E. Guillaumin (c. 1889. Wikimedia Commons.

3. Originating in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg, the flu pandemic of 1889-1890 rapidly spread throughout the globe to kill more than a million people within two months

Sometimes referred to as “Russian flu” or “Asiatic flu”, although not to be confused with the Russian flu strain known as H1N1, the pandemic of 1889-1990 was a worldwide outbreak of influenza. Assisted by the advancement of modern transport infrastructure, with the largest nineteen nations of Europe possessing a collective two hundred thousand kilometers of railway by the late-19th century, influenza, for the first time, was provided the opportunity to become truly global in scope. First recorded in Saint Petersburg in December 1889, within four months the virus had spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Demonstrating the rapidity of its spread, the peak of the pandemic in the United States was the second week of January 1890. Taking just five weeks to reach peak mortality, more than one million people worldwide were killed by the outbreak. Originally thought to have been a strain of the H2N2 influenza virus, known as Asian flu and mutated from birds, modern medical analysis has cast doubt on this claim. Instead, it is widely suggested today that the pandemic was a result of the broader H3N8 strain, more commonly found in ducks, dogs, and horses.

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
Emergency hospital during the influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas (c. 1918). Wikimedia Commons.

2. “Spanish flu”, as the 1918 influenza pandemic became to be known, killed almost five percent of the world in the aftermath of the First World War

The 1918 influenza pandemic, colloquially known as “Spanish flu”, remains among the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Due to wartime censorship in Allied nations, neutral Spain, not being involved placed no such restrictions on the press, and the accurate reporting of outbreaks in the Iberian nation led people to incorrectly associate the illness with Spain. An atypically deadly flu pandemic involving the H1N1 strain of the virus, modern transportation, the close quarters of soldiers during World War I, the weakened condition of many of these soldiers, and the fast movement of troops, helped spread the virus as far away as the Pacific Islands and the Arctic.

A precise explanation for the high mortality rate is uncertain, with flu traditionally claiming the young or old; in contrast, Spanish flu predominantly killed healthy young adults. Infecting an estimated five hundred million people worldwide, approximately one-third of humanity, within the first year of the pandemic life expectancy in the United States dropped twelve years. Carrying a mortality rate of between ten and twenty percent, it is estimated the pandemic was responsible for the deaths of between fifty and one hundred million people, representing three to five percent of the global population, including as many as twenty-five million in the first six months.

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
The influenza viruses that caused the Hong Kong flu (magnified approximately 100,000 times). F. A. Murphy, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis/ Wikimedia Commons.

1. The last pandemic to claim more than one million lives, “Hong Kong flu” spread quickly around the world but fortunately carried an atypically low mortality rate

The 1968 flu pandemic, more commonly referred to as “Hong Kong flu” and lasting between 1968 and 1969, was the product of mutations in the influenza virus. The first known outbreak of the H3N2 strain, descended from the H2N2 strain the new variant was a response to the traditionally avian virus mutating within a swine host. First appearing in the city of Hong Kong on July 13, 1968, Chinese authorities, failing to learn from an outbreak of Asian flu in 1957, were extremely slow to respond or issue warnings. By the end of July, outbreaks were reported in both Vietnam and Singapore, with India, the Philippines, Australia, and Europe infected by September.

Reaching the United States via troops returning from the Vietnam War in December, Africa and South America were eventually infected in 1969. Fortunately for humanity, compared to other flu pandemics Hong Kong flu carried a low mortality rate. This was chiefly because of a winter outbreak, some natural immunity after the Asian flu outbreak, and vastly improved medical care. Killing an estimated one million people worldwide, including 33,800 in the United States, a vaccine was developed as rapidly as possible and began being administered as early as 1968 to some patients.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“Rats, Lice and History: A Chronicle of Pestilence and Plagues”, Hans Zinsser, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers (1996)

“DNA Examination of Ancient Dental Pulp Incriminates Typhoid Fever as a Probable Cause of the Plague of Athens”, M.J. Papagrigorakis, C. Yapijakis, P.N. Synodinos, and E. Baziotopoulou-Valavani, International Journal of Infectious Diseases (2006)

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“The Plague Under Marcus Aurelius”, J.F. Gilliam, American Journal of Philology (July 1961)

“Solving the Mystery of an Ancient Roman Plague”, Kyle Harper, The Atlantic (November 1, 2017)

“The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire”, Kyle Harper, Princeton University Press (2017)

“Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750”, Lester K. Little, Cambridge University Press (2006)

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“The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History”, Donald R. Hopkins, University of Chicago Press (2002)

“The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History”, Ole J. Benedictow, Boydell Press (2012)

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“Manitou and Providence”, Neal Salisbury, Oxford University Press (1982)

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“Epidemics Resulting from Wars”, Friedrich Prinzing, Buchanan Press (2009)

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Seeking Hope, They Found Death“, Rene Bruemmer, Montreal Gazette (May 30, 2009)

“The Journey of an Irish Coffin Ship”, James Mangan, Mercier Press (1994)

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