Pandemics in History


The world would not have been as safe and immune to numerous diseases if pandemics did not occur in the past. Although major historical virus outbreaks fastened the development and resulted in the advanced modern healthcare and medicine systems, many people continue to suffer from well-known illnesses. The World Health Organization classifies a pandemic as a global spread of a disease, for which “most people do not have immunity” (para. 2). If not managed properly, such infections can cost millions of lives. As the entire world is currently on lockdown fighting a newly spread version of coronavirus, history shows opportunities that can be derived from it. Black Death, smallpox, and Spanish flu were one of the most lethal and impactful pandemics. This paper describes the origin of these three outbreaks and analyses their social consequences.

Black Death

The Bubonic plague, or the Black Death, is one of the most well-known pandemics in history. It is believed to be the most impactful historical event of the late Middle Ages, which deeply affected not only Europe’s but also Southwest Asia’s economies, medicine, and social life (Aberth vii). Unfortunately, the exact origin of this extremely lethal pandemic is still questionable: some historians locate it to India and Central Asia, while others claim that the Black Death started to spread in Mongolia (Aberth, p. 11). On top of that, even the cause of the Black Death is unclear. Most historians and medical scientists agree that the disease was very similar to the plague spread by fleas (Aberth, p. 23). Yersinia pestis – a bacteria in rodent populations – was transferred to humans when these animals moved to inhabit villages and cities in China as a result of floods and abnormal weather in their native lands (Aberth, pp. 11-13). Furthermore, poor hygienic conditions among the public only helped to boost the infection.

The healthcare systems in the European and Southwest Asia countries, which were damaged the most, were neither ready nor capable of fighting the disease. It is important to note that the Black Death dated back to 1347-1351, peaking between 1348 and 1350. Doctors at the time did not have experience in preventing and effective curing such a widespread virus. Thus, medicine was helpless in the face of the Black Death, which “killed up to 50 percent of the inhabitants of Europe” (Aberth vii). The consequences of losing nearly one-half of its population in Europe are impossible to estimate. The plague pandemic of the late Middle Ages transformed family values, economic conditions, and relationships between many countries. In fact, some sources indicate that several countries tried to help their workers by introducing improved labor conditions and increasing wages (Aberth, p. 69). The devastating four-year pandemic severely damaged and took the lives of many people. However, it helped to improve healthcare systems around the world and invented preventative measures, such as quarantine and fumigation.


The smallpox outbreak introduced vaccines to the world and transformed the global disease treatment approach. Unlike the Black Death, smallpox pandemic did not occur within a short time range but scattered throughout history devastating different cultures and populations. It is believed to originate around 10,000 BC in Northeast Africa (Riedel para. 3). Indicators of the earliest version of smallpox were noticed even on “the mummified head of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses V” (Riedel para. 3). The disease was spread all around the globe, from Egypt and China to the Roman Empire and North America, becoming one of the first biological weapons used against American Indians in the late 1750s (Riedel para. 4-6). Due to its high fatality, the infection motivated scientists to invent new and effective curing methods.

As a result, Edward Jenner became a savior of many with his new anti-smallpox injection. The virus caused around 400,000 deaths annually in the 18th century in Europe, with a lethality rate of up to 60% among adults and up to 98% among infants (Riedel para. 6). Early treatment methods dated as far back as to ancient Africa, India, and China in the means of variolation or inoculation – “instillation of smallpox virus into nonimmune individuals” (Riedel para. 9). Inoculation helped Edward Jenner survive smallpox – he later introduced the first vaccine to the world (Riedel para. 19-30). The smallpox pandemic took millions of lives, but it pushed people to innovate medicine and save many more.

Spanish Flu

The Spanish flu of 1918-1920 is the most recent major pandemic. Surviving numerous plague outbreaks, experiencing severe social, economic, and cultural consequences, and continuously improving disease prevention methods, the Spanish influenza was a dramatic shock. It was not the first influenza virus epidemic, but it was the most deadly (Johnson and Juergen 105). The infection caused respiratory problems, and due to the developed global communication and transportation systems became a global threat in only one year (Johnson and Juergen 107). Some of the main difficulties of the pandemic were underreporting and poor outbreak response. According to Johnson and Juergen (p. 107), the Spanish flu occurred in three waves – the third being the most damaging. The first wave received little to almost no attention at all despite devastating the young populations (Johnson and Juergen, pp. 106-107). Although the Spanish influenza pandemic did not have a case-fatality rate as high as the previously mentioned Black Death and smallpox, it still resulted in millions of deaths.

This infection outbreak could have been firstly perceived as common flu. This lead to an issue of underreporting cases of infection and lethality, which prevented quick and effective disease response. “The universal pattern of young adult mortality” is considered to be the major characteristic of the 1918-1920 epidemic (Johnson and Juergen, p. 107). The exact mortality number of the Spanish flu among young and the general population is still questionable. Previous data suggested around 21.5 million fatal cases, but Johnson and Juergen (pp. 108-109) argue that the numbers are much higher, taking into account the time limitations, issue of underreporting, and number of epidemic waves. Based on numerous sources, they estimate the Spanish flu mortality between 50 to 100 million cases (Johnson and Juergen 114). These numbers could have been lower if countries around the globe responded to the disease waves appropriately.


All three of the pandemics – the Black Death, smallpox, and the Spanish flu – severely damaged the social, economic, and cultural stabilities of the contemporary world. These different in nature and effect disease outbreaks were the most deadly in history. Each of them, however, has introduced new innovative medical response measures and the importance of a common goal. Quarantine, hygiene standards, vaccination, and clear and truthful communication are the key measures in fighting and preventing pandemics. History has shown their devastating consequences and ways to tackle them. So the answers to the current coronavirus outbreak can be found in medical science innovation, proper response measures, and transparent information exchange.

Works Cited

Aberth, John. The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Johnson, Niall P. A. S., and Mueller Juergen. “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918-1920 “Spanish” Influenza Pandemic.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 76, no. 1, 2002, pp. 105-115. 

Riedel, Stefan. “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination.” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, vol. 18, no. 1. 2005, pp. 21-25. 

World Health Organization. “What Is a Pandemic?” WHO, 2010 Web.