Epidemic: A Reading List Spanning 3,000 Years

By Lapham’s Quarterly

By Lapham’s Quarterly

On the Nature of Things



The pestilence that swept through Athens in 430 BC is estimated to have killed up to a hundred thousand people. The people of Athens, in the midst of fighting a war against Sparta, had retreated behind their walls, relying on the power of their superior navy to protect them. Drawing on Thucydides for the details, Lucretius’ account of the pestilence comes at the end of this six-volume work.

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

James C. Scott

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In this work Scott, a professor of political science at Yale University, traces the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to life in sedentary households supported by agriculture and livestock, a transition that proved, in the words of one reviewer of the book, a “complete disaster for humankind.” “We were all,” writes Scott of the new proximity of humans to their livestock in settled communities, “crowded onto the same ark, sharing its microenvironment, sharing our germs and parasites, breathing its air.”

Kaqchikel Chronicles: The Definitive Edition


Spanning the creation of the world to the first decades of Spanish colonization, the only known manuscript of the chronicles of the Kaqchikel Maya was discovered in a Guatemala City monastery in 1844. The epidemic described in this work, likely smallpox, may have originated on the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys


It’s believed that over a hundred thousand people died during the Great Plague of London—a quarter of the city’s population. A naval administrator, Pepys was thirty-two when he wrote about the plague in the diary that would eventually bring him posthumous fame.

The Scarlet Plague: 100th Anniversary Collection

Jack London


London published, in the final sixteen years of his life, over fifty books, including this novel. Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” the story is set in the twenty-first century, after the world has been struck by a pandemic.

The Blazing World and Other Writings

Margaret Cavendish

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In this work Cavendish describes “conferences with the Galenic physicians” about “the cause and nature of apoplexy and the spotted plague.”

One of Ours

Willa Cather

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Cather based this novel on the World War I experiences of a cousin who had died in battle in France in 1918. While writing it the following year, Cather came down with the flu. The doctor treating her, she learned, had served as a medical officer on a troop ship. He allowed her to read his diary, which proved a valuable source for the novel’s description of a flu outbreak at sea.

Horseman, Pass by

Larry McMurtry

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Part of the background of this novel is a 1947 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Mexico. U.S. ranchers called for the construction of an animal-proof border wall. The two countries instead undertook a joint vaccination effort, successfully preventing the disease from crossing the border.

Twilight in Delhi

Ahmed Ali


A novelist, translator, and diplomat, Ali was born in Delhi in 1910 and moved to Pakistan after the partition of India. He published this, his first novel, about the waning of the Muslim aristocracy in India under British rule, in 1940 to international acclaim. Over twelve million Indians died during the 1918–19 flu pandemic, a fact emphasized by supporters of Indian independence.

The Old Drift

Namwali Serpell

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Spanning more than a hundred years in the history of Zambia—from the building of the Kariba Dam to Kenneth Kaunda’s election and the HIV/AIDS epidemic—and extending into its near future, this novel is interspersed with commentary from a chorus of mosquitoes “full of secrets—black fever, marsh fever, tertian ague—and more than eager to squeal them.”

Rats, Lice and History


Born in New York City in 1878, Zinsser received his doctorate in medicine from Columbia University and later earned fame for isolating the typhus bacterium and developing a vaccine against it. “The effects of a succession of epidemics upon a state are not measurable in mortalities alone,” he writes in this book, presented as a “biography” of typhus.

Florentine Codex: Book 12, Volume 12: Book 12: The Conquest of Mexico

Bernardino De Sahagun


From 1545 to 1590 Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary, enlisted local elders and Nahua students of his at the Imperial College of Tlatelolco to compose this twelve-volume encyclopedia of Nahua history and culture. According to some estimates, over half of Mesoamerica’s native population died during the first wave of smallpox epidemics introduced by the Spanish during their initial expeditions on the mainland.

The Last Man

Mary Shelley

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This novel is set in a future in which a plague has ravaged humanity, ending with the titular protagonist, Lionel Verney, setting sail in search of fellow survivors. Ryland, the newly elected Lord Protector of England, absconds to the north after the plague crosses the English Channel. He is later found dead, eaten away by bugs and surrounded by “piles of food laid up in useless superfluity.”

Natural History: A Selection

Pliny the Elder

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A lifelong bachelor who died while investigating the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, Pliny, in addition to this encyclopedia, wrote now-lost books on grammar, history, and competitive javelin throwing. In this work Pliny describes a skin condition he calls lichen, which may have been a form of leprosy.

The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World

Shihab Al-Din Al-Nuwayri and Shihab Al Al-Nuwayri


In one passage in this thirty-three-volume encyclopedia Al-Nuwayri describes price gouging on groceries in the midst of a plague outbreak.

The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus

Richard Preston

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Commissioned by The New Yorker to write an essay on the Ebola virus, Preston adapted it into this 1994 book. Its novelistic approach was based, he explains in a note to the reader, “on interviews with the subjects in which they have recalled their thoughts, often repeatedly.” In a 2020 interview, he described how, on a research trip to Fort Detrick’s Ebola lab, the protective gear he was wearing tore open. “One of the options would be to wet myself and start screaming and demand to be taken out,” he recalled thinking. “Another one would be, since I’m already exposed...just carry on with my assignment, which is what I chose to do.”

Death in Venice: And Seven Other Stories

Thomas Mann


About a week after Mann and his wife arrived in Venice for a seaside vacation, Venetian police confiscated and destroyed two thousand pamphlets distributed by local medical professionals warning residents and tourists of an emerging cholera outbreak. According to notes Mann kept while writing this novella, the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, arrives in Venice on June 2, 1911, the same day that the Manns, having learned of the epidemic, cut their vacation short and returned home to Munich.

A Journal of the Plague Year

Daniel Defoe

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Presented as an eyewitness account of the Great Plague of London, Defoe’s fictional narrative was written nearly sixty years after the epidemic.

Faith, Reason, and the Plague in Seventeenth Century Tuscany

Carlo M. Cipolla


This book, one of over twenty the historian wrote on subjects ranging from public health to clock making, contains a riveting description of a 1631 outbreak of plague in Monte Lupo, which is prolonged because local residents refuse to follow health regulations.

The Ten Books on Architecture, Volume 1


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Little is known of Vitruvius’ life beyond certain details contained in this ten-book treatise on architecture, urban planning, and engineering. The work appears to have been written shortly after Augustus, to whom it is dedicated, began a systematic renovation of Rome’s public buildings and aqueducts in 27 BC. Situated near the Adriatic coast of Apulia, the original site of Salapia was surrounded by former salt marshes. Soil runoff, resulting from the introduction of intensive agriculture to the region, had transformed them into brackish lakes of the kind preferred by malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

Kyrie: Poems

Ellen Bryant Voigt


Published in 1995, this sonnet sequence about the influenza pandemic of 1918–19 is Voigt’s fifth poetry collection. Voigt professed having “no particular interest in the epidemic” until she recalled her father’s stories of living through it as a young child. “It occurred to me that its circumstance—my father’s circumstance—was multiplied thousands of times during the epidemic,” she said. “My father’s was a generation of orphans.”

The Romance of Tristan: The Tale of Tristan's Madness



One of several medieval versions of the story of Tristan and Yseut, Béroul’s four-thousand-line edition is considered closest to the Celtic legend that inspired it. Scholars have struggled to assign a precise date of composition to the text, which is preserved, according to one historian, in a single “defective and carelessly executed codex.” In favor of a date in the last decade of the twelfth century, some point to a later scene in which Tristan pretends to suffer from “mal d’Acre,” a possible reference to the disfiguring plague that struck European Crusaders during the 1190 siege of Acre.

Selected Letters

John Keats


In September 1820 the twenty-four-year-old poet headed to Rome in the hopes that the air would ease his worsening tuberculosis. On reaching Naples, the ship was quarantined for ten days due to an outbreak of typhus in London. Besides writing a letter to the mother of his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, Keats spent his time in the harbor conjuring up “more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life.” He died in February 1821, never having returned to England.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

Barbara W. Tuchman

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Born in 1912 to a wealthy New York banking family, Tuchman worked as a correspondent for The Nation during the Spanish Civil War before publishing a series of acclaimed books of popular history, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Guns of August in 1962. “The interest of the period itself,” she writes in her foreword to this 1978 portrait of the fourteenth century and the aftermath of the plague, “a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering, and disintegrating age, a time, as many thought, of Satan triumphant—was compelling and, it seemed to me, consoling in a period of similar disarray.”

China Syndrome: The True Story of the 21st Century's First Great Epidemic

Karl Taro Greenfeld


The first reference to what would become known as SARS appeared in a January 3, 2003, article in the Heyuan Daily, a Communist Party–controlled newspaper in southern China, where the disease first emerged. “There is no epidemic in Heyuan,” assured the report. “There is no need for people to panic.” After infecting more than eight thousand people, SARS vanished the following year, with no new cases reported since 2004. A novelist, television writer, and journalist, Karl Taro Greenfeld published China Syndrome, an account of the SARS epidemic, in 2006.

Evils of Quarantine Laws, and Non-Existence of Pestilential Contagion

Charles MacLean


During the 1820s and 1830s, as cholera spread across Europe, debate arose between contagionists, who argued that epidemic diseases were transmissible through direct contact, and anticontagionists, who insisted they were the result of local causes. An East India Company surgeon and vociferous anticontagionist, Maclean at one point caught the plague while serving at the Greek Pest Hospital in Constantinople but concealed the illness. Owing in part to his efforts, Parliament amended its quarantine laws in 1825, concerned over commercial competition from countries with laxer regulations.

Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath

Carlo Ginzburg


An Italian historian, Ginzburg published this follow-up to his 1966 examination of European witchcraft, The Night Battles, in 1989. Ginzburg tells the story of accusations made in the fourteenth century about a plot against European kings by lepers, which led to killings of lepers across the continent. Many historical accounts of the leper plot routinely implicated Jews, including several chronicles that cite the confession of a leper who claimed to have been hired by an unnamed Jew to disperse a poison consisting of “human blood, urine, three unspecified herbs, and a consecrated host.”

Fighting for Life

S. Josephine Baker


After graduating from the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, Baker went into private practice. Finding that many of her patients were too impoverished to pay, however, in 1902 she became a health inspector for the New York City Department of Health. Later, as founding director of the Bureau of Child Hygiene, she established a program in which nurses visited new mothers in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The nurses encouraged breast-feeding and discouraged giving babies beer, then a common practice. Within three years infant mortality in the city fell by 40 percent.

Letters on England


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In 1726, after being arrested for threatening a duel, Voltaire agreed to live in exile in England. The following year he began work on this collection of essays on English political and intellectual life. Voltaire praises Lady Mary Wortley Montagu for having brought the practice of inoculation back from Constantinople, as well as Caroline of Ansbach, princess of Wales, for having promulgated it in England. The letters “present a world of politics, science, and literature that is predictably male-centered,” wrote one scholar, yet “the letter on inoculation is a refreshing exception.”

Capek Four Plays: R. U. R.; The Insect Play; The Makropulos Case; The White Plague

Karel Capek


The son of a country doctor, the Czech satirist published The White Plague the year before his death at the age of forty-eight, three months before German troops marched into Prague. In the play, a self-effacing Doctor Galen discovers a cure but refuses to treat anyone but the poor until the government stops preparing for war. The play ends with his murder at a pro-war rally and the decimation of Europe by war and plague. “However cartoonish Čapek’s ironies may seem,” wrote Susan Sontag of the play, “they are a not improbable sketch of catastrophe... as a managed public event in modern mass society.”

The Atharvaveda



The last of the four collections of ancient Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas, the Atharvaveda consists of more than seven hundred spells, curses, and charms concerning matters of everyday life. There are four hymns in the Veda dedicated to the cure of an ailment called takman (fever), which has been identified as malaria on the basis of its seasonality and its characteristic intervals of fever and chills. While “witchcraft and healing are serious businesses,” wrote the translator Charles Rockwell Lanman in 1905, “I presume that the idea of sending the fever as a choice present to one’s neighbors is intended to be jocose.”

Economic Writings. Together with the Observations Upon the Bills of Mortality, More Probably by John Graunt; Volume 1

William Petty, John Graunt, et al.


Known as the father of demography, the statistical study of human populations, Graunt examined the bills of mortality that had been kept by London parishes since 1532, finding that certain phenomena of death statistics recurred. From this he devised the life table, which presented mortality in terms of survivorship. “With this book,” wrote the epidemiologist Kenneth Rothman in The Lancet in 1996, “Graunt added more to human knowledge than most of us can reasonably aspire to in a full career.”

The Corner That Held Them

Sylvia Townsend Warner

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Born in 1893 in Harrow on the Hill, England, the communist writer and musicologist Sylvia Townsend Warner worked in a munitions factory during World War I and served with the Red Cross during the Spanish Civil War before publishing this 1948 novel, set in a Benedictine convent during the Black Death. On June 14, 1940, as news of Paris’ occupation reached England, she wrote, “I think people here would be much more frightened if the Germans were the Black Death. Then the news—the Black Death is in Rouen, in the Channel ports, has appeared in Paris—would set people to thinking: soon I may catch it and die.”

The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine: A New Translation of the Neijing Suwen with Commentary (Revised)

Maoshing Ni

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A foundation of traditional Chinese medicine for over two thousand years, this treatise is named for the semilegendary emperor Huangdi, who was purported to have written it around 2600 BC. Scholars now date it to the third century BC, owing largely to its reliance on Taoist conceptions of nature. “When yin and yang are harmonized,” added the seventh-century commentator Yang Shangshan, “no epidemic diseases emerge, and extraordinary happiness sets in plentifully. This is something one does not know why it is so, and yet it is so.”

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death's Duel: With the Life of Dr. John Donne by Izaak Walton

John Donne

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The metaphysical poet John Donne took religious orders in 1615 and was elected dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral six years later. In November 1623 he was struck by a mysterious illness, possibly typhus or relapsing fever. Believing himself to be on his deathbed, and convinced the illness reflected his own sinfulness, Donne sought to record his experience. The ensuing work was published in January 1624. “Donne’s sickbed is a stage,” wrote the poet Andrew Motion, “and we admire the patient as if we were looking at him across footlights.”

Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher

Lewis Thomas

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The son of a physician, Thomas grew up in Flushing, Queens, and studied medicine at Harvard University, where he was a protégé of bacteriologist Hans Zinsser. Many of the essays collected here were among the fifty that Thomas, an immunologist and hospital administrator, published in The New England Journal of Medicine from 1971 to 1980. “Sooner or later they will all become nonmysteries, accountable and controllable,” he wrote of diseases in another installment. “Then what? What on earth will we die of? Are we to go on forever, disease-free, with nothing to occupy our minds but the passage of time?”

The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter

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Born in Indian Creek, Texas, in 1890, Porter moved to New York City in 1919 and published her first book, Flowering Judas, in 1930. The 1939 novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” about the 1918–19 influenza pandemic, is set in Colorado, where Porter was working as a writer in 1918 when she caught the flu. “It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that,” she said of her illness in a 1963 interview. “So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again.”

On Being Ill: With Notes from Sick Rooms by Julia Stephen

Virginia Stephen Woolf

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Woolf discusses the taboos associated with illness and explores how it changes our relationship to the world around us, focusing especially on illness from the caregiver’s perspective.

The Condition of the Working Class in England

Friedrich Engels


After finishing military service in Berlin, Engels was sent abroad to spend three years at his father’s spinning mill in Manchester. The “unwholesome method of building, the frightful condition of the working people’s quarters,” including a typhus epidemic, alarmed the future socialist philosopher.

Piers Plowman: A Modern Verse Translation

William Langland


“A reader can hardly miss the language of medical practice that occurs throughout Piers Plowman,” wrote the medievalist Rosanne Gasse of the allegorical poem’s abundance of disease and healing metaphors: the personifications of Contrition, Faith, and Conscience are cast as surgeons who excise sin from patients, while Jesus is described as skilled in metaphysical “leechcraft.”

Virgil's Georgics



A native of Cisalpine Gaul, Virgil began composing this four-book poem in 37 BC, seven years after the assassination of Julius Caesar. He completed it around 31 BC, the year of Augustus’ victory in the Battle of Actium, which marked an end to Rome’s republican government. Ostensibly a didactic poem about farming, “the central thesis of the Georgics,” wrote the translator Janet Lembke, is that “nothing the farmer does—not hoeing with extra diligence, not saying prayers over and again—can keep the random blows of nature from wrecking his enterprises.” In one passage Virgil describes how “a lament broke out” that sickened domestic animals.