American Social History Project • Center for Media and Learning

Epidemics in U.S. History

Primary Sources from ASHP Sites

Smallpox and American Indian Populations

  • Indian Trader John Lawson's Journal of Carolina, 1709
    Tragically, contact between Indians and the Europeans extended beyond just trade goods; the invasion of foreign microbes devastated Indian communities well beyond the coastal region. When John Lawson visited the Carolina interior in the 1690s, he encountered the Congaree people, whose numbers and villages had been dramatically reduced by smallpox and other diseases.  This excerpt from his journal A New Voyage to Carolina details not only the native flora and fauna of the region, but also the impact of smallpox on the native communities he visited. From: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web

Immigration and Health Concerns

  • A Doctor Decries the Public Health Danger of Immigrants
    Fears of "foreign viruses" pervaded debates on health and immigration in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Some Americans––including the doctor in the following passage––feared that the arrival of large numbers of immigrants from countries in Eastern and Southern Europe was bad for society, and that these immigrants brought diseases with them that were a threat to public health. From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

The Influenza of 1918/19

  • “Please, Let Me Put Him in a Macaroni Box”: The Spanish Influenza of 1918 in Philadelphia
    In these oral history excerpts, Clifford Adams, an African American from the South; Anna Lavin, a Jewish immigrant; Anne Van Dyke and Elizabeth Struchesky; and Louise Abruchezze, an Italian immigrant, discussed their shared experience in Philadelphia—shocked by the scale of the influenza outbreak, none could fathom the lack of respect shown for those who had died. From: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web
  • “There Wasn’t a Mine Runnin’ a Lump O’ Coal”: A Kentucky Coal Miner Remembers the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919
    Kentucky coal miner Teamus Bartley was interviewed at ninety-five years of age and vividly recalled the impact of the flu pandemic on his community. With a dearth of healthy laborers, the mines shut down for six weeks in 1918 and miners went from digging coal to digging graves. From: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web
  • “He’ll Come Home in a Box”: The Spanish Influenza of 1918 Comes to Montana
    In this 1982 interview with Laurie Mercier, Loretta Jarussi of Bearcreek, Montana, described how people would pass through that tiny town seemingly healthy, only to be reported dead two days later. Her father went undiagnosed for many weeks and had plans to go to a nearby hot springs to rest. She believed that her father’s death was averted only because the son of the local doctor was an army doctor who recognized flu symptoms that others missed. From: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web

The AIDS Epidemic

Online Collections

  • Virtual New York City: Cholera in Nineteenth Century New York
    By the early nineteenth century, outbreaks of deadly disease had become commonplace in New York City. Smallpox, Yellow Fever, measles, and malaria recurrently plagued residents as they carved a city out of the marshes of Manhattan Island, but cholera was among the most virulent infectious diseases to strike. New Yorkers’ reactions to these increasingly traumatic public health disasters show how understandings of disease were filtered through contemporary ideas about class and social relations, conceptions of immigrants, and notions of the city government’s responsibility for public health in mid-nineteenth century New York.

    This online exhibit, part of ASHP's "Virtual New York City" website, delves into the complex social conditions exposed by a historical community's response to infectious disease.
  • The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918
    This online collection from the National Archives and Records Administration uses records selected from the organizations vast database to, as their introduction asserts, "help the epidemic take its rightful place as a major disaster in world history."
  • Medicine in the Americas: 1610-1920
    This collection from the U.S. National Library of Medicine makes freely available original works demonstrating the evolution of American medicine from colonial frontier outposts of the 17th century to research hospitals of the 20th century.
  • Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics
    This collection from the Harvard University Library's Digital Collections provides general background information on diseases and epidemics worldwide, and is organized around significant “episodes” of contagious disease.
  • Medicine and Madison Avenue
    This collection explores the complex relationships between modern medicine and modern advertising, or "Madison Avenue," as the latter is colloquially termed. It presents images and information for approximately 600 health-related advertisements printed in newspapers and magazines. These ads illustrate the variety and evolution of marketing images from the 1910s through the 1950s.
  • Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis
    This exhibition website presents New York City's battle against infectious disease. Humans and microbes have always co-habited, and their relationship has had a profound influence on human history—especially in cities, the crossroads of the movements of people, goods, and germs. The exhibition was organized by the Museum of the City of New York in collaboration with The New York Academy of Medicine and Wellcome. Scroll down to "In-Depth Stories" for an essay on epidemics througout New York's history.

Discussion Questions

  • What connections can be made between historical epidemics and the current COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What sets the current pandemic apart from previous examples?
  • How has the government/medical community's response to epidemics affected the spread of disease? What lessons can be applied to the current official response?
  • How have previous epidemics and the current pandemic exposed class/racial/ethnic stereotypes in American society?
  • What role does community organizing play in pressuring government/society to affect change during an epidemic?
  • What are the short and long term effects of epidemics on labor and employment? What can be done to lessen this impact today?
  • Using examples from the past, what methods can historians and the general public use to preserve the history of the current pandemic?
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