A camp found in Kansas during the Spanish flu

A Timeline of Epidemics, Pandemics, and Disease in Human History


There is a theory that every one hundred years, a pandemic happens. At first glance, nothing seems scary about that statement, but the accuracy with which these events take place is scary. This theory has been proven false because there were many other pandemics that took place in between those years. The World Health Organization explains a pandemic as “The worldwide spread of a new disease”. The definition of the United States Centre’s for Disease Control and Prevention is nearly the same, “A pandemic is a global outbreak of disease. Pandemics happen when a new virus emerges to infect people and can spread between people sustainably“.

Viruses spreading all over the world
Credit: Webmd

1347- The Black Death Pandemic

This image shows us what doctors use to wear during the Black death with a description for each thumbnail
Here is an image that shows us the doctors’ attire during the Black Death (Credit: Pinimeg)

The Black Death (also known as the Pestilence, the Great Mortality or the Plague) was a bubonic plague (a rare but serious infection transmitted by fleas) pandemic occurring in Afro-Eurasia from 1346 to 1353. It is the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, causing the death of 75–200 million people in under 4 years, in Eurasia and North Africa, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351. Yersinia pestis is the bacteria that caused the plague. Fleas were the main carriers, causing the spread. These insects pick up the germs when they bite into infected animals such as rats, squirrels or mice and pass it on to the next thing they bite.

Not only was the black death the most fatal, it was also the longest pandemic of all time. This mere disease spread more than a mile per day. Today we probably think a mile is a short distance, but back then it was definitely not just around the corner, nor did they have the proper medication to treat this disease. Whereas nowadays there are antibiotics for it and the disease is not as fatal.

Origin of the name

The Black Death, earned its name from a symptom: lymph nodes that became blackened and swollen after bacteria entered through the skin.

This image demonstrates the fatality of the plague and the amount of death
Source: National Geographic

1720-The Great Plague of Marseilles (the continued version of the Black Death)

A painting of Marseille during the plague
Source: Robert Valette/Wikimedia

A ship named the Grand Saint-Antoine arrived in the port of Marseille, France, laden with cotton, fine silks, and other goods. The invisible cargo itself also carried the bacteria known as Yersinia pestis, which launched the Great Plague of Provence, the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe. The disease killed a total of a hundred thousand people: 50,000 in the city during the next two years and another 50,000 to the north in surrounding provinces and towns.

This plague was one of the four worst pandemics in history, with the Black Death coming in second. While economic activity took only a few years to recover, as trade expanded to the West Indies and Latin America, it was not until 1765 that the population returned to its pre-1720 level.

1817-The Cholera Outbreak and Pandemics (the Blue Death)

A notice on how to prevent Cholera
Credit: Wikipedia

Cholera is a bacterial disease that causes severe diarrhoea and dehydration. Contaminated food or water is what spreads this disease . Which I’m sure most of you know what it is, but for those who did not have a cooking clue, now you know. Lack of treatment of human faeces and lack of treatment of drinking water greatly facilitate its spread. Bodies of water have been found to serve as a reservoir, and seafood shipped long distances can spread the disease. Not treating this disease right away has been proven fatal.

A baby being treated for cholera in India
Source: History.com

The first cholera pandemic, also known as the first Asiatic cholera pandemic or Asiatic cholera, began near the city of Calcutta and spread throughout South and Southeast Asia to the Middle East, eastern Africa and the Mediterranean coast. Over two million people have died because of this disease. The pandemic died out after 6 years, due to the severe winter which may have killed the bacteria in the water. Seven cholera pandemics have occurred in the last 200 years and this was the very first one.

Name of origin

Cholera has been nicknamed the “blue death” because a person’s skin may turn bluish-grey from extreme loss of fluids.

1889-The Russian Influenza

A front page article about the Russian flu in 1889
Credit to the circulating now

In 1889–1890, a pandemic, sometimes known as the “Asiatic flu “or “Russian flu”, killed about 1 million people worldwide. out of a population of about 1.5 billion, The Great Russian Flu of the early 1890s may have been a Covid-like virus , but scientists suggested that the virus crossed from cows into humans. Thousands died of respiratory illness, the prime minister was laid low, and employees’ sickness disrupted industry and transport.

It sounds familiar. Yet this pandemic erupted in 1891 when waves of disease swept round the globe. Eventually, killing more than a million people. The Great Russian Flu pandemic was given its name after an outbreak and assigned to the flu. The pandemic mostly affected people younger than 25 or 26 years of age. The first outbreak was in Russia, hence the name of the virus.

Late 1800s and early 1900s- Yellow fever

Children getting vaccinated during yellow fever. Fred L. Soper (1893-1977) was an American epidemiologist and public health administrator who won a Lasker Award in 1946 for organizing successful campaigns to eradicate yellow fever and malaria between 1927 and 1945. Soper giving Yellow fever vaccinations in Belem, Brazil in the 1930's.
Fred L. Soper (1893-1977) was an American epidemiologist and public health administrator who won a Lasker Award in 1946 for organizing successful campaigns to eradicate yellow fever. Soper giving Yellow fever vaccinations in Belem, Brazil in the 1930’s. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Yellow fever is a viral infection spread by a particular species of mosquito. It is common in areas like Africa or South America. More than a hundred thousand people died from yellow fever. Slave trade ships from Africa brought the mosquito species to the western hemisphere and to the Americans. Not only did this disease cause fear but also economic disruption, it sounds like something we are all familiar with. Especially the South African nation and what they are experiencing now with all the riots and looting.

After World War II, the world had DDT in its arsenal of mosquito control measures, and mosquito eradication became the primary method of controlling yellow fever. The symptoms of the disease were fever, chills, muscle pain, headache, yellow skin. The complications were liver failure, bleeding. All of which are preventable by vaccines.

High Resolution picture of people going for the yellow fever vaccine
(Original Caption) Virginia: The exodus from Newport News caused by the Yellow Fever outbreak, 1898.

Origin of the name

The “yellow” in the name refers to the jaundice that affects some patients.

1918-The Spanish Flu

A camp found in Kansas during the Spanish flu
Source is Wikimedia

The Spanish flu was another deadly virus that caused a pandemic. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population have become infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.”


It was called the Spanish flu “not because it originated in Spain but because it was World War I, and Spain was the only country being honest about the toll the pandemic took on the country,” according to a Washington Post article on the deadliest pandemics in history. To read more about it. Click here.

1957-H2N2/Asian Disease

A image taken from inside a hospital during the asian flu pandemic
Credit: Han Rubo

It was first reported in Singapore in February 1957, Hong Kong in April 1957, and in coastal cities in the United States in summer 1957. The estimated number of deaths was 1.1 million worldwide and 116,000 in the United States. Immunity to this strain of influenza A (H2N2) was rare in people less than 65 years of age, and a pandemic was predicted.

Like many other flu symptoms, it included:

  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Coughing
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite

In preparation, vaccine production began in late May 1957, and health officials increased surveillance for flu outbreaks. Unlike the virus that caused the 1918 pandemic, the 1957 pandemic virus was quickly identified due to advances in scientific technology. This flu pandemic was the second major one to occur in the 20th century, and we all know it is not going to be the last. The one upside to this pandemic was that it was the least severe one of them all.

1965-The Great Disease of London

Detail of the scenes of the London plague
Source: National Archives

Remember the Black Death? This was the last major bit of it to happen in England. With over seventy-five thousand deaths to occur during that year. As you can see, this was definitely on a much smaller scale, compared to the Black Death. The implementation of quarantine helped get rid of the disease, only going out when it was most needed. This sounds all too familiar, if you ask me.

London lost 15% of it’s population during this time. The plague was transmitted between animals and humans by the bite of infected fleas, direct contact with infected tissues, and inhalation of infected respiratory droplets. Thus, having the same symptoms as the common flu we all know today. People carried bottles of perfume and wore lucky charms to help prevent the disease. “Cures” for the plague included the letters ‘abracadabra’ written in a triangle, a lucky hare’s foot, dried toad, leeches, and pressing a plucked chicken against the plague-sores until it died.

London was facing a devastating fire and a pandemic
Source is History.com

People’s lives and businesses suffered terribly because so many were shut down in their homes. One eyewitness said that London became so quiet that every day was like a Sunday and grass started to grow in the streets. Many were forced to beg or steal food and money because the plague had such a bad effect on trade. There wasn’t a spirit of unity and collective pulling together to fight the plague. Samuel Pepys (England’s first blogger) wrote in his diary,” The plague is making us cruel as dogs to one another.”

1968-H3N2/ The Flu virus

Above, scores of patients crowded in the waiting hall of a clinic on Hongkong Island during the influenza epidemic in Hong Kong.
Above, scores of patients crowded in the waiting hall of a clinic on Hongkong Island during the influenza epidemic in Hong Kong. 25JUL68 Credit: South China Morning Post.

The Flu virus, otherwise known as the Hong Kong virus, is comprised of two genes from avian influenza. It was first noted in the United States in September 1968. The estimated number of deaths was 1 million worldwide and about 100,000 in the United States. Most of the surplus deaths were in the age group of people 65 years and older. The H3N2 virus continued to circulate worldwide as a seasonal influenza virus. This was the third worst pandemic of the 20th century.

The image shows people seeking flu treatment
Above is people seeking flu treatment in a hospital in Singapore. (source: St files)

Although pandemic deaths were much lower in 1968 than they were in 1918, influenza virus infections have become the leading cause of seasonal flu illnesses and cause of deaths over the past fifty years. The outbreak started in July of 1968 with 500 000 cases in Hong Kong, and quickly spread throughout the world and over 160 million people were affected by this virus by September of 1968.

2009-H1N1/ Swine Flu

Symptoms of the swine flu
Credit: Verywell Health

In the Spring of 2009, a new type of flue emerged. It was found in the United States and quickly spread across the country and the world. Over five hundred thousand people have died worldwide from this virus. The disease first started in pigs, which is why it is also called pig flu and another name for pig is swine. The virus spreads from pig to pig, but it is also transmissible to humans. Most human infections occur because of direct contact with a pig. However, there has only been one documented case of human to human transmission of swine flu.

People began wearing masks because of the swine flu outbreak
Credit: Shutterstock

Researchers also found 20 times higher rates of respiratory deaths in some countries, including America, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. The toll was far lower in New Zealand and Australia, as well as for some parts of Europe. The mortality rate fell mostly among the younger generation as the older people were not as affected.

2019- The Chinese Covid-19 pandemic

A picture of the different flags showing unity for covid
Credit to orfonline.org

We definitely know this pandemic all too well, out of all the pandemics. As we are still faced with these viruses’ repercussions till this very day. The coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause illnesses such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). In 2019, a new coronavirus was identified as the cause of a disease outbreak that originated in China.

Social distancing in Kuwait
Credit: Greg Miller

In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. People who are older have a higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and the risk increases with age. People who have existing medical conditions also may have a higher risk of serious illness. Certain medical conditions may increase the risk. So far, there have been 184 million cases and over 4 million deaths worldwide. This is a pandemic that we as the human race and animal kingdom are still facing. So the stats change every day.

A testing station for covid in Johannesburg, South Africa
Credit: Bloomberg.com


The new name of this disease is coronavirus disease 2019, abbreviated as COVID-19. In COVID-19, “CO” stands for corona, “VI” for virus, and ”D” for disease. Formerly, this disease was referred to as “2019 novel coronavirus” or “2019-nCoV.”


An image of a virus
Credit: BAPS Charities

After reading about the deadly viruses that occurred over time and how many people have passed on during these pandemics, it gives one a sense of ease, knowing that the world always recovers and makes it through whatever crisis we are experiencing, be it the Black Death or Covid-19. The world always comes together as one to find a solution. This demonstrates that the survival of the human race is very resilient.

“Bioarchaeology and some other social sciences have repeatedly demonstrated that these kinds of crisis play out along the pre-existing fault lines of each society”.

– Says Gwen Robbins Schug, a Bioarchaeologist at Appalachian State University.

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