A Pandemic History



October 29, 1920 Polygon Weekly Gasp feature with nursery rhymes and poems featuring the diseases of the times.

Covid-19 has been afflicting the world today for almost two years. Everyone around us has felt the effects of the virus and it’s changed the world forever. However, pandemics, quarantines, and vaccinations have been around for much longer. Every aspect of how the world deals with disease and pandemics has changed hundreds of times spanning thousands of years.

There have been around 249 major pandemics from 1200 BCE to 2022. This includes smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, and many more. One of the first examples of a severe, documented pandemic is the Justinian Plague in the 6th century. The Justinian Plague was the first of many major bubonic plague pandemics. It wiped out somewhere ranging from 25-60% of Europe’s population and lasted 8 years. Emperor Justinian, the namesake of the plague, blamed the various minorities (which included Jews, homosexuals, and pagans among others) in Europe for bringing the disease to Constantinople. He forced them into quarantine, thinking this would slow the death rate. This obviously didn’t work because the Christians in Constantinople already had and were spreading the disease. Jumping forward a thousand years, the most recent pandemic, Covid-19, has changed the world we live in and affected everyone around us. This strain of the virus has been around for two years, but other strains have actually been around for centuries. Distinct strains of the coronavirus were first discovered in the 1960s, but have mutated a great deal since. Mutations of diseases normally occur in animals and stay in animals. However, in some rare cases, it transfers to humans and our unprepared immune systems. For example, smallpox, a disease that caused people to develop massive blisters and severe fevers, was thought to have originated from cowpox and horsepox, similar diseases that afflicted animals. Covid-19 originated in bats. Other viruses can be extremely deadly, but can’t survive changing seasons, like yellow fever. Yellow fever had been ravaging the world for more than 200 years before it broke into Boston in 1693. It ended up killing tens of thousands of people. It was most deadly in the summer, and almost completely died out in the winter. Besides the ones mentioned, there have been an incredible amount of diseases and pandemics throughout human history and an equal amount of preventive measures and strategies.

Vaccination and inoculation have been around for a long time, and have been studied and changed for centuries. Starting in 1000 BCE with Emperor K’ang Hsi inoculating his children in China by grinding up smallpox scabs and blowing them into their noses, preventive measures have been discovered and developed countless times. In 1776, half of the 10,000 Continental Army soldiers in Quebec got infected by smallpox. It was suspected that the British army sent recently variolated people into the Continental camps, using smallpox as a weapon of war. That same year, a man named Edward Jenner discovered that infecting people with cowpox, the disease he suspected smallpox came from, could prevent smallpox infections. He tested this out on a young boy by scraping matter from a cowpox sore and inoculating him. The boy was sick for a few days but made a full recovery. A few months later, Jenner infected the boy with matter from a smallpox sore. The boy survived and didn’t even fall ill, proving this vaccination to be effective. The word of Jenner’s success spread and while it has been refined, the science behind the first vaccine still works today.


Over the next few years, vaccination spread around the world and was widely endorsed. The U.S vaccine office was founded. In 1879, a man named Louis Pasteur created the first laboratory-made vaccine, a vaccine for chicken cholera. He experimented by infecting live chickens with the disease to see how long it took them to die. He figured out that the thing that weakened the virus was exposure to oxygen after an assistant forgot to reinfect the chickens and left them alone with only one dosage for the holidays. They all recovered. Pasteur then turned to rabies and how they affected animals. In 1884, he announced that he had successfully found a vaccination for dogs from rabies and soon developed a similar vaccine for people. While he was mostly focused on animals, Pasteur inspired a man named Jaime Ferran, who developed a cholera vaccine by taking bacteria from a cholera-infected person’s waste, growing it, and injecting it into people’s arms. This is very similar to the way vaccines work today and helped further enhance vaccines into what they are in the present.

Quarantining is another huge aspect of pandemics and the prevention of pandemics. The word quarantine stems from the Italian word for forty, “quaranta”, because ships were required to stay docked for forty days before entering infected cities. As mentioned earlier, Emperor Justinian forced the minorities of Constantinople to quarantine, which is one of the earliest examples of this practice. Another early example of quarantine emerged during the Black Death, which wiped out a fifth of Europe’s population in the 14th century. In Italy, the health officials decided that the air itself was poisoned with the Black Death, so they took a great deal of time inspecting food, wine, and even sewage and destroying the clothes of the dead. The only truly effective measure taken here was the burning of the infected clothes, but all this prevented was secondary infections. In Reggio, the Lord of Milan decreed that all infected people should be taken to fields outside the city to die or recover. To further protect the country, the health officials in Ragusa, in Sicily, created a quarantine law that ordered ”that citizens or visitors from plague-endemic areas would not be admitted into Ragusa until they had first remained in isolation for 1 month; (2) that no person from Ragusa was permitted go to the isolation area, under penalty of remaining there for 30 days; (3) that persons not assigned by the Great Council to care for those being quarantined were not permitted to bring food to isolated persons, under penalty of remaining with them for 1 month; and (4) that whoever did not observe these regulations would be fined and subjected to isolation for 1 month” (Paul Sehdev, the Origin of Quarantine). Quarantining, just like vaccinations, has been changed over time as the world progressed. 

As the world slowly works through Covid-19, it’s interesting to look back in history and see how far we’ve come. All of the procedures to stop diseases have been modernized and changed, and as new developments come into the world, they will continue to be worked on. While Covid has been tragic and life-altering, it’s helped the world learn new ways to deal with crises. As more sicknesses inevitably emerge, new ways to deal with and stop them will emerge as well.