Epidemics and Society | Frank M. Snowden III

Summary of: Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (Open Yale Courses)
By: Frank M. Snowden III


Embark on an enlightening journey through the history of epidemics with Frank M. Snowden’s seminal work, ‘Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (Open Yale Courses)’. Be prepared to delve into the gripping chronicles of devastating pandemics such as the bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, and the more recent Ebola, SARS, and COVID-19 outbreaks. With remarkable precision, Snowden illustrates how these diseases have played a monumental role in shaping human history, often serving as agents of social change. Uncover the extraordinary stories of medical pioneers like Dr. Edward Jenner, Louis Pasteur, and Joseph Lister, whose groundbreaking discoveries and tenacious efforts have contributed significantly to our understanding and prevention of infectious diseases.

The Impact of Epidemics

In his book, Frank M. Snowden highlights how epidemics of emergent and resurgent diseases such as COVID-19, Ebola, cholera, and malaria have shaped history and driven social change. Snowden argues that epidemics have incited fear, religious fervor, and artistic expression while also casting blame and inciting social and political unrest. He notes that diseases have impacted society as strongly as wars, revolutions, and economic disasters. Snowden also reports that the world is currently facing its biggest risk of infectious diseases in history, with fully 335 new diseases having emerged from 1960 to 2004. Despite this, the world was unprepared to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. Snowden’s sobering analysis sheds light on the human cost of pandemics and the ways in which we must better prepare to respond to future threats.

Three Plague Surges

Snowden’s book discusses three major outbreaks of the plague, beginning in Africa in 541 AD and continuing to present day. With each surge, states implemented increasingly coercive measures to control the disease. The Black Death in Europe led to the institutionalization of public health measures, including quarantines and ship-seizing. Plague was a catastrophic event, setting a standard for future epidemics. Despite medical advances, it remains a threat. Snowden’s informative account of the three surges of the plague invites readers to understand the history and impact of this deadly disease.

The Greatest Medical Achievement

Snowden highlights the eradication of smallpox through international vaccination as the most impressive use of medical science. In the 17th and 18th centuries, smallpox was responsible for approximately 10% of all deaths in Europe. However, in 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner confirmed through experimentation that cowpox infection provided immunity to smallpox. This discovery led to the mass vaccination efforts that ultimately eradicated smallpox, starting in 1959. Snowden praises this achievement as a prime example of the practical application of medical science.

The Devastating Effects of Epidemics on Warfare

Snowden’s book delves into the impact of epidemics on warfare, with examples from Napoleon’s case histories. The author examines the devastating effects of Yellow fever during the rebellion of enslaved Africans in Haiti, where 45,000 of 65,000 soldiers died. The book also discusses the harsh conditions that led to a significant reduction in Napoleon’s army during the invasion of Russia in 1812, where only 75,000 soldiers survived out of 500,000. Snowden effectively paints a vivid picture of how epidemics can quickly render warfare futile.

Medical Revolutionaries

Snowden’s account of the Paris School of Medicine between 1794 to 1848, shows how its members pioneered breakthroughs that influenced science. René Laënnec invented the stethoscope in 1816, while French chemist Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization, showing that bacteria brought about spoilage. Pasture theorized that attenuated strains produced immunity, enforcing the germ theory of disease. Professor Joseph Lister showed how washing hands and sterilizing instruments by surgeons reduced the risk of infection. In his studies of chicken cholera and anthrax, Snodwen marvels at Pasteur’s contributions to medicine and offers him as a true hero.

The Ongoing Cholera Pandemic

Cholera continues to spread through oral-fecal transmission due to contaminated drinking water, malnourishment, poverty, and crowded housing. Snowden notes that since 1817, seven pandemics have occurred, and the seventh continues in Africa, Asia and South America, causing 143,000 deaths annually.

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