Epidemics and Pandemics That Changed History

Epidemics and Pandemics That Changed History

By Larry Holzwarth
Epidemics and Pandemics That Changed History

**Disclaimer: History Collection is aware of the current pandemic concerning COVID-19. The facts and opinions expressed in this article are not an official source of information on the current outbreak or how it will trend. For the most up to date information on the current pandemic, please find your resources on the CDC or WHO websites.**

An epidemic is the spread of an infectious disease within a given population. It becomes a pandemic when it spreads across international borders. Throughout recorded time epidemics and pandemics altered human history, not solely through illness passed between humans. Pandemics have affected the animal kingdom, reduced the food supply, and led to famine and starvation. For centuries mankind had little means of protecting itself from pandemics; superstition, racism, and ignorance supplanted medical thought and practice. Though in truth, much of medical thought was based on the same failings.

An emergency ward established during the Spanish Flu pandemic in Camp Funston, Kansas. Wikimedia

Some pandemics of the past are well known, though often misunderstood. The Black Plague which decimated Europe is one example. The Spanish Flu pandemic near the end of the First World War is another. Epidemics altered American history as the nation grew, with diseases such as cholera, typhus, yellow fever, and malaria changing populations, particularly in the southern states. Smallpox killed thousands of American Indians, their primitive medical practices unable to cope with what many called the white man’s disease. European history is similarly marked by the ravages of disease. Here are some of the epidemics and pandemics which changed world history.

Galen described the symptoms of the plague but did not specify the disease. Wikimedia

1. The Antonine Plague ravaged the Roman Empire for decades

The famous physician Galen described the Antonine Plague. Most of what is known of it comes from his records. The pandemic swept the empire for at least fifteen, and according to some up to 25 years. The actual disease at the core of the pandemic remains debated. Smallpox is regarded as the disease by some, others claim it was measles. Galen’s descriptions of symptoms include fevers, skin eruptions (of different types), and gastric disorders. Other medical scholars define the evolution of measles occurred more than three centuries after the pandemic, which, if correct, eliminates measles as the culprit. Nearly all agree that troops returning to Rome from the east carried the disease with them, which spread rapidly throughout the empire.

About 25% of people who contracted the disease died. The pandemic ravaged the Roman Legions in Gaul and the Germanic lands, and claimed the life of Lucius Verus, co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius. From 165 to 180 AD (some say 190 AD) at least 5 million died. During the height of the pandemic in Rome 2,000 people died per day, according to the historian Dio Cassius. The weakened Roman Legions were unable to contain the Gauls and Germanic tribes south of the Danube River. Trade with Han China and in the Indian Ocean was curtailed. Eventually, 10% of the Roman population succumbed during the pandemic.