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
“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)

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

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

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“The Plague and the Fire”, James Leasor, George Allen and Unwin (1962)

“Plague: An Ancient Disease in the Twentieth Century”, Charles T. Gregg, University of New Mexico (1985)

“The Last Plague in the Baltic Region, 1709-1713”, Karl-Erik Frandsen, Museum Tusculanum Press (2010)

“Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History”, Brn Barnard, Crown Publishers (2005)

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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)

“Epidemiology of the Russian flu, 1889-1890”, Michelle Ziegler (January 3, 2011)

“The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Great Plague in History”, J.M. Barry, Viking Penguin Publishing (2005)

“Epidemic and Peace: 1918”, A.W. Crosby, Greenwood Press (1976)

“Mass Mediated Disease: A Case Study Analysis of Three Flu Pandemics and Public Health Policy”, Debra E. Blakely, Lexington Books (2006)