Historical Infectious Diseases Other Than Influenza
Here are resources on some non-influenza epidemics that had historical impact. Writers who want to add drama to their novels’ plots by having characters deal with diseases rampant in their chosen time periods may find these websites and books useful.
There is an overwhelming amount of material out there on these topics, so I had to pick and choose for space reasons, leaving out some diseases and shortening annotations. So this list is not comprehensive, but it will at least get novelists started on their disease research.
WEBSITES ON TYPHUS AND TYPHOID FEVER
(not synonymous, the former spread by lice/fleas, the latter a bacterial infection from contaminated food or water)
The Irish Famine Archive has documents on this page on Grey Nuns caring for Irish immigrant typhus victims in Montreal, Canada in 1847.
This page has digitized hospital records of patients who were diagnosed with typhoid fever in western Maryland.
A page from a Canadian news outlet on how Typhoid Mary spread the disease to her employers’ families, ca.1900-1907, and parallels with Covid-19.
A digital exhibit from University of Virginia on Walter Reed and his fight against typhoid fever, especially in the Spanish-American War.
A free academic journal article offered by the American Society for Microbiology about the use of paleomicrobiology to study typhus, with sections on the disease’s history.
BOOKS ON TYPHUS AND TYPHOID FEVER
Rats, Lice and History, by Hans Zinsser. Atlantic Monthly Press/Little, Brown, 1935.
While old for a medical book, this title is still in print, partly due to its amusing style: ”The louse is foremost among the many important and dignified things that are made subjects of raucous humor by the ribald.” Zinsser’s book is a biography of typhus through the course of history. You may feel guilty for smiling while reading about a dreaded disease.
Typhoid Fever: a History, by Richard Adler and Elise Mara. McFarland, 2016.
The first two chapters discuss the disease in ancient times, and there are several passages discussing famous cases, such as Alexander the Great, Prince Albert, two American Presidents, and of course “Typhoid Mary.”
WEBSITES ON TUBERCULOSIS
Four short educational films about TB from low-budget filmmaker Edgar Ulmer, with emphasis on educating minority populations about the disease, from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
A free academic article from Respiratory Medicine, on the history of the disease from prehistoric times.
A free academic article from American Thoracic Society on treatment from the late 1800s.
An article from Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health (Australia) on the history of the disease from antiquity to the 19th century.
From the Encyclopedia of Colorado, an article about how possibly one third of the state’s early settlers came there hoping the mountain air would cure their TB.
BOOKS ON TUBERCULOSIS
Miracle of the Empty Beds: a History of Tuberculosis in Canada, by George Wherrett. University of Toronto Press, 1977.
Chapters include effect on native peoples, how it was handled in wartime, and sections on each province’s battle against TB.
Spitting Blood: the History of Tuberculosis, by Helen Bynum. Oxford, 2012.
Bynum, a freelance historian, begins the book with author George Orwell’s case. Other chapters cover the history of TB through the centuries, including historical “cures.”
The White Death: a History of Tuberculosis, by Thomas Dormandy. New York University Press, 2000.
Chapters discuss TB’s association with the Romantic Movement, its effect on the poor as well as the upper classes, and famous cases such as Keats and the Brontes.
WEBSITES ON POLIO
A brief visual history of the disease from the BBC.
A freely-available master’s thesis on the history of polio in New Zealand. (If your main browser won’t open it, try a different one. Chrome opened it for me but Microsoft Edge wouldn’t.)
A page from the Smithsonian Institution with text and images from the fight to control polio in the 20th century.
Article from a Canadian newspaper about a mid-20th-century polio outbreak.
BOOKS ON POLIO
Polio: an American Story, by David Oshinsky. Oxford, 2005.
Starting with the first U.S. polio outbreak in 1894, Oshinsky traces the history of the efforts to conquer the disease in the U.S., and the ways the fight affected society.
Polio Voices: an Oral History from the American Polio Epidemics and Worldwide Eradication Efforts, by Julie Silver and Daniel Wilson. Praeger, 2007.
This book collects oral histories of people’s experiences with the disease in the US. Chapters look at its impact on the families of the victims, the disease’s impact on disability rights in America, and one on post-polio syndrome.
WEBSITES ON SMALLPOX
From Mount Vernon’s website, about the effect the disease had on the American Revolution.
Access an e-book from the Harvard Library on the disease in Boston in 1721, with commentary and a nice bibliography.
Science Museum (U.K.)’s page on the history of the disease.
The Wellcome Library (U.K.) offers this list of primary source documents on smallpox. Some are in languages other than English.
Title is self-explanatory, from the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation page speculating on exactly who introduced the disease to the continent.
BOOK ON SMALLPOX
The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History, by Donald Hopkins. University of Chicago, 2002.
This book would be especially good for historical novelists: “the story of how smallpox…exerted a singular influence on human history through the ages before its extinction”—preface.
WEBSITES ON YELLOW FEVER
Louisiana State University’s digitized primary source documents on yellow fever in that state.
By the U.S. National Library of Medicine, includes a nice digital gallery.
In Holly Springs, Mississippi, where 300 citizens died in an 1878 outbreak.
From University of South Florida. You can view pages on outbreaks in Tampa and Jacksonville in the 1880s, and a page on people’s reactions to the disease.
BOOKS ON YELLOW FEVER
Yellow Fever: a Deadly Disease Poised to Kill Again, by James Dickerson. Prometheus Books, 2006.
This book covers outbreaks in Philadelphia (1793), New Orleans (early 1800s), Memphis (1870s), Mississippi (mid-1800s), and during the Spanish-American War (1898).
An American Plague: the True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, by Jim Murphy. Clarion Books, 2003.
Children’s books can be a good introduction to a topic. This award-winning book aimed at middle grades tells the story of the 1793 epidemic in Philadelphia. The illustrations are all from the period, such as newspaper articles and death lists.
WEBSITES ON RABIES
A 383-page e-book from the World Health Organization giving a detailed history of rabies in Europe.
A blog post from the National Museum of American History on the treatments available to rabies sufferers, ca.1900, with photographs.
A free academic article on how rabies was handled in early 20th century Japan.
An academic paper, title self-explanatory. This will tell you when the first cases of rabies in a particular animal were recorded.
BOOKS ON RABIES
Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Rabies in Britain, 1830-2000, by Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys. Palgrave, 2007.
The introduction states that “the dread of rabies and hydrophobia was a constant presence and perpetual concern” in Victorian England.
Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Penguin, 2012.
A journalist and veterinarian trace the history and cultural influence of this dread disease.
WEBSITES ON THE PLAGUE
Science Museum (U.K.)’s introduction to Black Death pandemics in history.
Wellcome Collection’s page on the village of Eyam in Derbyshire and how residents quarantined themselves in the 1300s.
Article by Joshua Mark on the 1347-52 pandemic, about both Christians and Muslims.
About outbreaks in the Australian state in the 20th century, with photographs.
National Museum of Australia’s page on 20th century plague.
Science History Institute’s page on an outbreak of plague in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century.
University of Texas Medical Branch’s online collection of documents, such as a creepy photo of rat catchers, on the fight against plague in the Texas seaport in 1920.
BOOKS ON THE PLAGUE
Daily Life During the Black Death, by Joseph Byrne. Greenwood Press, 2006.
Chapters discuss the effect of the Black Death on the churches, in government circles, in theaters, on manors and villages, etc. There is a section on the Muslim world, but it mostly covers European history.
The Great Mortality: an Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, by John Kelly. HarperCollins, 2005.
“Attempts to bring alive the world described in the letters, chronicles, and reminiscences of contemporaries” [—preface] on the Black Death of the 1300s in Italy, France, and Britain.
Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe, by William Rosen. Jonathan Cape, 2007.
Rosen examines the first plague pandemic in the 540s and its effect on late antiquity. Twenty five million people were estimated to have died.
Plague in the Early Modern World: a Documentary History, ed. by Dean Bell. Routledge, 2019.
Excerpts of relevant primary source documents (with editor’s context) on the Plague between 1300-1700s.
WEBSITES ON CHOLERA
This site offers digitized 19th century books and primary sources from the library’s collection on cholera, some in languages other than English.
The link offers maps, drawings, cartoons, etc. associated with cholera from all over the world. This link
will connect you to 547 19th century books and sources on the topic, which you can view immediately or download.
British immigrants brought the disease with them in 1832, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. This article gives a brief overview of 19th century cholera epidemics.
These websites’ titles are rather self-explanatory:
BOOKS ON CHOLERA
Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books, 2007.
The story of how Dr. John Snow solved the mystery of a cholera outbreak in 1850s London.
Cholera, the Biography, by Christopher Hamlin. Oxford, 2009.
Concentrates on outbreaks of the disease in the 19th century in Britain and India.
Cholera, a Worldwide History, by S.L. Kotar and J.E. Gessler. McFarland, 2014.
The authors use period sources, especially newspapers, to tell the story of the disease from the 1800s through the 2000s.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.