A Brief History on the World’s Pandemics

Spreading across continents and infecting more people by the day, COVID-19 caught the world off-guard. During this difficult time for many it is important to focus on the positives, one being the modern advancement of science to cope with the effects and find a solution to the virus, and another the technology that allows information to be spread quickly and efficiently, even keeping people in touch during quarantine. Though it may seem that the world has been turned upside down because of COVID-19, this virus is not the world’s first pandemic, and nor will it be the last.

Looking back in time to maybe the most infamous pandemic, the fourteenth century world was brought to its knees during the Black Death. After a shift to agrarian life, an increase in trade among civilizations, and a rapidly increasing world population, diseases were inevitable. The Black Death or Black Plague caused the largest death toll to this day, over 200 million people between 1347 and 1351, spreading the Yersinia pestis bacteria from rats and fleas to humans. This was the pandemic that quarantine was implemented, though too late for many due to the belief that the gods’ wrath brought disease on the people and it was a doomed fate.

The next major pandemic was the Smallpox outbreak in the New World in 1520. The Variola major virus killed around 56 million people, devastating the Mayan and Aztec civilizations as well as many other native populations throughout the years.

The Great Plague of London, Italian plague and the Third plague all were various strains of the Black Plague, fatally infecting millions of civilians across London, Italy and China/India respectively. These overlapped with the Great Cholera pandemics that spread across the world through 1817-1923 due to the belief that cholera was an airborne disease. Not until scientists in London concluded that cholera was spreading through tainted water sources was the outbreak able to be contained. This also marked the first use of mapping a pandemic to try and estimate direction of infection throughout populations.

The Yellow Fever was the first major epidemic to have a high impact on the whole United States population. This virus was carried by mosquitos and killed around 150,000 people across the United States in the late nineteenth century.

The Russian flu, Spanish flu, Asian flu, and Hong Kong flu ranged from 1889 to 1970 and had avian or pig origin, spreading the H1N1 or H2N2 virus across many populations. The Spanish flu being the most deadly and most global lasted only from 1918 to 1919, but killed 40 to 50 million people across the globe on the heels of World War I.

The more recent pandemics are more familiar, HIV/AIDS from 1981 to the present, Swine Flu, SARS, Ebola, MERS, and now COVID-19. With an always growing and urbanizing world population disease is inevitable, but the science and technology developed in this twenty-first century gives hope to finding a way to curb these pandemics. So while we practice social distancing and listen to our government leaders, let us be thankful for this age of technology that keeps us informed and the healthcare workers and scientists that work tirelessly to keep us safe.


Visualizing the History of Pandemics