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Epidemics and History

Epidemics and History

Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Epidemics and History
    Book Description:

    This book is a major and wide-ranging study of the great epidemic scourges of humanity-plague, leprosy, smallpox, syphilis, cholera, and yellow fever/malaria-over the last six centuries. It is also much more. Sheldon Watts, a cultural and social historian who has spent much of his career studying and teaching in the world's South, applies a wholly original perspective to the study of global disease, exploring the connections between the movement of epidemics and the manifestations of imperial power in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and in European homelands. He shows how the perceptions of whom a disease targeted changed over time and effected various political and medical responses. He argues that not only did Western medicine fail to cure the diseases that its own expansion engendered, but that imperial medicine was in fact an agent and tool of empire.Watts examines the relationship between the pre-modern and modern medical profession and such epidemic disasters as the plague in western Europe and the Middle East; leprosy in the medieval West and in the nineteenth-century tropical world; the spread of smallpox to the New World in the age of exploration; syphilis and nonsexual diseases in Europe's connection with Asia; cholera in India during British rule; and malaria in the Atlantic Basin during the eras of slavery and Social Darwinism. He investigates in detail the relation between violent environmental changes and disease, and between disease and society, both in the material sphere and in the minds and spirits of rulers and ruled. This book will become the standard account of the way diseases-arising through chance, through reckless environmental change engineered by man, or through a combination of each-were interpreted in Western Europe and in the colonized world.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17429-8
    Subjects: Health Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xvi)

    Living and writing in largely Islamic Cairo 160 years after the author ofEothenobserved it in time of plague, I am struck by the continuing integrity of Egyptian culture when confronted with life-threatening crises. I am also aware that the sort of cultural imperialism trumpeted by Kinglake is far from dead. For instance, one of the quality London newspapers recently available on Cairene streets revealed that a United Nations panel on climatic change estimated the cash value of each individual in the Third World at only one-fifteenth that of persons in Western Europe or America.²

    One of the first...

  6. 1 The Human Response to Plague in Western Europe and the Middle East, 1347 to 1844
    (pp. 1-39)

    In the summer of 1347 rats and fleas infected with bubonic plague boarded Genoese merchant ships at Caffa on the Black Sea. Later that year some of these ships passed through the Dardanelles, touched down at Messina (Sicily) and then sailed to Pisa, Genoa and Marseilles: other Genoese ships sailed directly from Caffa to the mouths of the Nile in Egypt. Within a few months pestilence of a form unknown to contemporaries began killing men, women and children on both sides of the Mediterranean. As 1348 wore on, the plague began striking populations along the Atlantic and Baltic coasts. Then,...

  7. 2 Dark Hidden Meanings: Leprosy and Lepers in the Medieval West and in the Tropical World under the European Imperium
    (pp. 40-83)

    In 1885 Henry Wright, archdeacon in the Church of England at Grantham, warned that “loathsome” leprosy, long thought to be extinct among civilized beings, was in India “eat[ing] into the nerve-tissues of [England’s] people.” Looking to the near future when he thought many of his nation would be settled in India, Wright predicted that travel back and forth would bring the terrible disease to England’s own “closely packed population.” To head off this “Imperial Danger,” Wright pleaded for Christian commitment to the despised “Lazar in his rags,” who like the lepers known to Jesus “invites us to hasten and help.”¹...

  8. 3 Smallpox in the New World and in the Old: From Holocaust to Eradication, 1518 to 1977
    (pp. 84-121)

    Most epidemiologists and historians admit that in the absence of smallpox pathogen in the New World, pre-Columbian people had no opportunity to develop immunity to the disease. However, any statement which goes beyond this is likely to be contested.¹ Here I adopt a moderate position. Accepting that 80–90 percent of any virgin soil (non-immune)localpopulation might have died when smallpox first appeared, I then ask why populations of survivors failed to recover their numbers.²

    This inquiry is in two parts. Beginning with a foray into cultural history during the era of the Renaissance, I examine the role of...

  9. 4 The Secret Plague: Syphilis in West Europe and East Asia, 1492 to 1965
    (pp. 122-166)

    While compiling theLondon Bills of Mortalityin 1662, the pioneer demographer John Graunt put his finger on a central issue in the study of syphilis during much of its 500-plus years’ reign in Europe: itsnear invisibility. As he explained:

    Forasmuch as by the ordinary discourse of the world it seems a great part of men have, at one time or another, had some species of this disease, I wondering why so few died of it, especially because I could not take that to be so harmless, whereof so many complained very fiercely; upon inquiry I found that those...

  10. 5 Cholera and Civilization: Great Britain and India, 1817 to 1920
    (pp. 167-212)

    Cholera emerged in epidemic form in India in 1817, and after an initial false start, arrived in Britain in 1831. Coinciding with these happenings, the private trading firm known as the East India Company (which had conquered Bengal in 1757) undertook further diplomatic and military maneuvers to bring the remaining provinces of the subcontinent under its sway. In this it was uncommonly successful. Thus came into being a situation in which asingleLondon and Home Counties based ruling elite was in command of two very different, cholera-stressed societies.

    In the course of the nineteenth century, Britain lost an estimated...

  11. 6 Yellow Fever, Malaria and Development: Atlantic Africa and the New World, 1647 to 1928
    (pp. 213-268)

    Yellow fever, “the hurricane of the human frame . . . dark and inscrutable in its cause,” seems to have come to the New World aboard ships carrying slaves from Africa; its first documented appearance was in Barbados in 1647.² Long thought to be one of the awful fevers harbored by the foul airs and soils of a particular place, in early years it was commonly claimed that its preferred targets were “unseasoned” newcomers from northern Europe. With death rates ranging from 20 to 55 percent, local promoters interested in attracting settlers usually clamped down hard on medical doctors who...

  12. 7 Afterword: To the Epidemiologic Transition?
    (pp. 269-279)

    The last half-century has seen the triumphal emergence of medicine as a fully scientific discipline of proven effectiveness in curing and preventing life-threatening diseases. Yet it hasalsoseen the emergence of a widening gap in the provisioning (and non-provisioning) of effective health services for the privileged few and the underprivileged many. In his analysis of 1995, the Director-General of the World Health Organization attributed the “health catastrophe” that is staring the majority of the world’s peoples in the face to “extreme poverty.” To this can be added four other evils: overpopulation, consumerism/development, nationalism and ignorance.¹ Let me examine some...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 280-367)
  14. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 368-384)
  15. Index
    (pp. 385-400)