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.
James C. Scott$22.00 $20.46
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.”
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.
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.
Margaret Cavendish$17.00 $15.81
In this work Cavendish describes “conferences with the Galenic physicians” about “the cause and nature of apoplexy and the spotted plague.”
Willa Cather$14.95 $13.90
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.
Larry McMurtry$14.95 $13.90
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.
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.
Namwali Serpell$18.00 $16.74
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.”
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.
Bernardino De Sahagun$40.00
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.
Mary Shelley$13.95 $12.97
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.”
Pliny the Elder$18.00 $16.74
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$19.00
In one passage in this thirty-three-volume encyclopedia Al-Nuwayri describes price gouging on groceries in the midst of a plague outbreak.
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.
Daniel Defoe$11.00 $10.23
Presented as an eyewitness account of the Great Plague of London, Defoe’s fictional narrative was written nearly sixty years after the epidemic.
Carlo M. Cipolla$17.95
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.
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.
Ellen Bryant Voigt$15.95 $14.83
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.”
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.
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.
Barbara W. Tuchman$20.00 $18.60
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.”
Karl Taro Greenfeld$17.99
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.
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.”
S. Josephine Baker$17.95
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.