Health Crises throughout History (January 2022)

This essay first appeared in the January 2022 issue of Choice (volume 59 | issue 5).


COVID-19 has greatly affected the lives of all people today in numerous ways and caused an increasing interest in the study of previous pandemics.  History, unfortunately, is rife with such disasters that make for engaging, alarming, and enraging reading.  The seventy-five books presented here are meant to provide a general introduction to the history of pandemics and allow for deeper reading into some of the most famous and well-studied pandemics. The essay is organized thematically in eleven sections based roughly on disease; more generalized books are presented in the first section, and a conclusion focuses on COVID-19.

Plagues, Pandemics and Viruses: From the Plague of Athens to Covid 19, by Heather E. Quinlan, is an engaging historical look at plagues and pandemics.  Quinlan writes for a general audience and assumes no background in the subject for her reader, making for an appropriate introductory text with many illustrations.  Her book has a wide scope covering a large range of historical periods.

Many diseases have an animal origin before they later jump to humans, which is known as a spillover infection.  David Quammen examines the roots of some of the most recent zoonotic diseases in Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. While significant attention is devoted to AIDS and other well-known diseases, Quammen also covers lesser-known zoonotic infections.

While many details of past plagues, such as the number of the dead or even the exact nature of the disease, have been lost to history, a significant number of accounts remain.  Peter Furtado has collected a number of excerpts from historical works and grouped them based on the disease in question, in Plague, Pestilence and Pandemic: Voices from History.  His translations are clear and smooth, and his selections from a variety of sources are engaging for readers who do not specialize in historical research.  While the historical first-hand accounts are interesting, Furtado provides limited historical context for the diseases. 

About the Authors:

Alexis Blavos, PhD, MCHES is associate professor, Health Department, SUNY Cortland.

Celeste McNamara is assistant professor, School of History and Geography, at Dublin City University.

Jennifer Moore is instructional services librarian at SUNY Cortland’s Memorial Library. Jeremy Pekarek is archivist and instructional services librarian at SUNY Cortland’s Memorial Library.