World History perspectives of pandemic

Ben Paronich's picture

Hello all,

I am beginning to develop a syllabus for a survey level course covering various pandemics throughout world history.  While I have plenty of books to tackle this, I was hoping to find some other alternative resources that would be more engaging for students and possible could have classes centered around.  The course will be primarily be covering the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and smallpox.  I was thinking any databases of visual sources, oral histories, or DH projects would be especially helpful.  Thank you! 



Ben Paronich

In answer to Ben Paronich's query about teaching resources for the history of pandemics, a few comments.

First, most of the books currently available on the history of pandemics are out-of-date with respect to understandings of the pathogens involved. That is because genetics has revolutionized what can be known about microorganisms, their evolution, and their geographic trajectories around the world. Most of this new work has been written by scientists for audiences of other scientists. So finding "interpretive" work beyond the breathtaking headlines of newspaper accounts can be a challenge. This is where it really pays to use Twitter and other platforms where it's easier to talk outside of and beyond disciplinary firewalls.

Second, many of those scientific studies are published open-access, and many of the labs that produce them are well-enough funded to produce high-quality maps and other visual data. These are tremendously valuable in the classroom. So even if the science itself seems forbidding, it's worth the time to look up the original study to see if there are downloadable images.

Third, medical libraries are often great resources for both old books (many of them scanned now) and historic images. Some top ones that I use are the Wellcome Library (London), BIU Santé (Paris - phenomenal for all francophone literature, as well as a lot of 17th-19thC lit published in France), Mütter Museum (Philadelphia), New York Academy of Medicine (NYC).

Pandemics have gotten as much attention in global history spheres the past year as in medical history. Indeed, I think the best new work written has been for global history blogs and journals rather than specialist medical history journals. Here are some of the journals that have produced high-quality special issues, which are good places to mine for citations to the latest work:

- Centaurus, 62, no. 2 (2020), Histories of Epidemics in the Time of COVID-19, ed. Erica Charters and Koen Vermeir, (open-access)
- Journal of Global History, 15, no. 3 (2020), Pandemics that Changed the World. Historical Reflections on COVID-19

The podcast, Global History Podcast, which focuses on the early modern period, has had several excellent interviews with historians of medicine, capturing the latest work in the field:

Finally, on the Black Death (which is now better framed as the Second Plague Pandemic), there is a comprehensive bibliography that encompasses all relevant fields: "The Mother of All Pandemics,"

I can provide additional bibliography on specific diseases; our understanding of smallpox's history, for example, is undergoing a seachange because of new findings in genetics. For the 1918 Flu Pandemic, there are bibliographies like the one being put together by Christopher Rose, which moves outside of an Americo-centric paradigm and looks globally. But mostly, I'd recommend browsing through the syllabi and Twitter feeds of people already doing work on the specific diseases or historical episodes you know you want to cover. As in most things COVID-related, the history of pandemics has attracted a lot of folks this past year with hot takes. A few of those have been worthwhile, but the best work is from people who were doing "pandemic thinking" even before the present crisis.

Good luck!

Monica H. Green
Fellow, Medieval Academy of America
Independent Scholar
Twitter: @monicaMedHist

The Great Courses has a very interesting course on the Bubonic Plague: The Black Death. I listened to the audio version.

Beverley Chalmers (bevchalmers1@gmail,com)

Thank you all so much for your thoughtful replies, I can’t wait to dig into all these materials!

I did something similar last year (and I've posted the course framing document here: ). I built the course in reverse order so that we could start with COVID-19 and discuss student experiences with it, and use that as a starting point for building historical empathy before moving backwards to HIV/AIDS, polio, etc. (Being in Texas, the unit on smallpox--which dealt with delousing practices at the border--had strong resonance as many of my students had older family members who had experienced the practice).

I heavily used the sources from the Wellcome Collection ( ), the National Library of Medicine ( ), and the Harvard CONTAGION collection ( ) to supplement. One of the most impactful activities was having students watch a short documentary about the 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia, and then read the written response by the city's Black community leaders -- which was a rarity!

And thanks to Monica for the shout-out - the Spanish flu bibliography is here:

Good luck!

[shameless self-promotion]

Might I humbly suggest my Oxford Graphic History "The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity"?


This is an interview that hit on many crucial issues:


I also wrote a few pieces that link my research on the Third Bubonic Plague Pandemic (1855-1950) to our current pandemic:

“Teaching Pandemic History During a Pandemic Present”, Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, special issue “Pandemic Pedagogy: Reflections on teaching in times of global disruption”.


“Alexandre Yersin: Plague Conqueror and White Colonizer”, Fiction and Film for French Scholars, Volume 11, Issue 1, October 2020:

Here is a micro-syllabus I wrote for "The Radical History Review"'s "Abusable Past":

“Microsyllabus: Histories of Epidemic Disease,” The Abusable Past:

And here are a few relevant podcasts that I either hosted or appeared on as a guest:

Southeast Asia Crossroads
Today we sit down with Michael Vann, and discuss his exciting new graphic history The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire Disease and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam


Lukas Engelmann and Christos Lynteris
Mar 26, 2021
Sulphuric Utopias
A History of Maritime Fumigation
As we mark the one-year anniversary of the COIVD-19 pandemic, take the time to listen to this discussion of previous efforts to fight yellow fever, cholera, and plague pandemics. Lukas Engelmann and Christos Lynteris’s Sulfuric Utopias: A History Maritime Fumigation (MIT Press, 2020) tells the story of the international dream of stopping the spread of infectious disease in global shipping networks. Their work shows how the interests of capitalism clashed with the efforts of public health officials. At the center of their narrative lies the Clayton, a machine which combined technocratic enthusiasm and necropolitical logic. Sulfuric Utopias brings together the history disease, capitalism, public health, and science. It is both a contribution to maritime history and urban history. Personally, I was so excited to interview two authors who know more about the history of rat killing than I do.
Lukas Engelmann is a Chancellor's Fellow in the History and Sociology of Biomedicine, in the department of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh.
Christos Lynteris is a Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of St. Andrews.


Mitchell L. Hammond
Mar 17, 2021
Epidemics and the Modern World
Normally we write blogposts that try to convince you to listen to a conversation with an author about their fascinating book. In the time of COVID-19, it doesn't seem necessary to have to sell you on why you should listen to this podcast. Suffice it to say that Mitchell Hammond’s excellent survey of a dozen deadly diseases is a must-read primer to make sense of epidemic history. In Epidemics and the Modern World (University of Toronto Press, 2020), he balances the science of disease etiology and disease cycles with political, socio-economic, and cultural contexts. Read this book! Mitchell L. Hammond, an Assistant Professor at the University of Victoria in beautiful British Columbia. Dr. Hammond studied at Yale, where he earned a BA in Political Science and a MA in Religious History before getting another MA and a PhD in European History at the University of Virginia. His dissertation was entitled “The Origins of Civic Health Care in Early Modern Germany”. He has published several articles and book chapters on the intersection of medicine and religion in 16th and 17th century Germany.

Michael G. Vann
Nov 26, 2019
The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt
Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam
A funny thing happened to historian Michael Vann* on the way to his PhD thesis. While he was doing his research on French colonialism and the urbanist project in Hanoi, he came across an intriguing dossier: “Destruction of animals in the city”. The documents he found started him on a research path that led to a section of his dissertation, then an article that gained a wide academic and non-academic readership, and now The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford UP, 2018). But this isn’t your typical historical monograph. One of the latest volumes in Oxford University Press’s Graphic History Series, The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt (with illustrations by Liz Clarke), explores the history of modernization, urbanization, and the spread of epidemic disease in the era of “New Imperialism” in an exciting and highly engaging format. The remaking of Hanoi as a capital of French empire from the end of the nineteenth century had unintended consequences. In the state-of-the-art sewers of the French/white areas of the city, rats found the perfect home. Then came the Third plague pandemic, the disease that travelled with rats and moved from one site to another around the globe…on railroads, ships, the growing networks of trade and empire. The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt mobilizes years of research about this episode in the city’s history, illustrating (literally!) the inherent contradictions of imperialism, and the complexities of domination and resistance in a colonial context. Framed as an undergraduate lecture that features the author as a character throughout the narrative, the book is set up with teaching in mind. In addition to the fascinating story of the rat hunt itself (and all the twists and turns involved), the volume includes a rich selection of primary sources and a series of contextual essays that will allow students to explore this history in a range of productive ways. An accessible book that is at once serious and fun, The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt was such a pleasure to read and to talk about. I hope listeners will enjoy my conversation with Mike as much as I did! *Mike is also a host on New Books in History! Be sure to check out his interviews here on the network.


The Infectious Historians podcast is fantastic. Here are my episodes, but there are dozens of excellent episodes.
Michael Vann (California State University, Sacramento) talks to Merle and Lee about the arrival of the Third Plague Pandemic in colonial Vietnam that led to the Great Hanoi Rat Hunt. Michael tells the amazing and amusing story of how colonial administrators put out bounties for killing rats in an effort to stop the spread of plague, and the surprising results of that approach. The story sheds light on questions of colonialism, racism, and imperialism. Michael also talks about the process of turning his academic article into a graphic history and the public outreach and responses to it.
Michael Vann (California State University, Sacramento) returns to the Infectious Historians (our first returning guest!), this time to focus on the biography of Alexandre Yersin, the Swiss-French doctor who discovered the bacterium that causes plague. The discussion covers Yersin’s biography from childhood, through his move to southeast Asia, his successful career and larger-than-life reputation – alongside the less palatable aspects of Yersin’s life. The conversation also touches upon issues such as Yersin’s entrepreneurship, his life as a European within a colonial context, and his personality.

[/shameless self-promotion]