What’s on : Lectures

History of the World in 100 Pandemics, Plagues and Epidemics

17 Jan 2023
Start time
2:30 PM
The Yorkshire Museum
Paul Chrystal
History of the World in 100 Pandemics, Plagues and Epidemics

Event Information

History of the World in 100 Pandemics, Plagues and Epidemics

Paul Chrystal, author

This lecture will explain the impact and consequences of successive pandemics, plagues and epidemics on the course of world history, looking at diseases such as cholera, influenza, bubonic plague, leprosy, measles, smallpox, malaria, AIDS, MERS, SARS, Zika, Ebola and, of course, Covid-19.

Lecture to be held in the Tempest Anderson Lecture Theatre, Yorkshire Museum,
YO1 7DR at 2.30pm


Member’s report:

Despite the impression that Covid has been uncharted territory, this is not the case.  There is evidence of plague victims in Neolithic times – 5000 years ago.

History tells about PPE, quarantine, ventilation, border controls, safe burials and vaccination as well as risk factors such as deforestation causing population movements into urban areas and subsequent increases in disease mutation.  Conversely, the Sidney plague of 1900 triggered mass movement out of the city spreading disease further but did trigger a huge urban renewal to clear slum areas.

The Manchurian plague of 1910 demonstrated the benefits of wearing face masks and China is credited with the development of HazMat suits.

Other epidemics over the years have included St.Vitus dance or Choreomania in the 14th to 16th centuries when victims were described as dancing in a state of abandon and trance.  This is now believed to be Sydenham’s chorea – a complication of streptococcal Rheumatic Fever.  The Great Sweat in the 15th to 16th centuries caused a rapid onset of fever and sweating and had a high fatality rate – often within 2 hours of the onset of symptoms.  The causative agent is not known.

Plague has been used as a weapon of war – e.g. by deliberate contamination of water supplies.  Smallpox was used for ethnic cleansing of Amerindians by the British and the Americans through provision of infected blankets and other goods.  Nearer to home, the island of Gruinard was deliberately infected with anthrax as an experiment in germ warfare during WW2.

Power and control have been shifted over centuries by plagues.  According to the Bible, the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem was defeated when they lost 185,000 soldiers overnight.   The plague-diminished population of Athens contributed to their defeated by Sparta.  Napoleon gave up his attempt to take over Hispaniola with an army of 40,000 when 35,000 of his soldiers died.

In recent times progress has been made in some areas although plague is still present in the Congo, Madagascar and Peru.  SARS in 2002 was successfully controlled but TB is a growing problem and, like Covid, is accentuated by the ‘medical poverty trap’.  Hansen’s disease or leprosy is now treatable and Novartis have provided free MDT (multi drug therapy) for over 7.3 million sufferers since 2000.

However, Louis Pasteur said “It is the microbes which will have the last word”.

Peter Burnett