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Epidemics in the UK Medical Heritage Library

At such a time of public concern, it can be interesting to examine how our ancestors viewed and dealt with epidemic diseases. I was looking at the UK Medical Heritage Library (UKMHL) which we provide as an open collection via our Historical Texts service and came across: Annals of influenza, or epidemic catarrhal fever in Great Britain, 1510-1837 prepared and edited by Theophilus Thompson. It was published by Sydenham Society in 1852. This 400+ page tome provides a fascinating overview of a disease that had affected millions over 300 years. It gives lots of detailed descriptions by various doctors over time providing an insight into changing approaches to the malady. From the introduction, I thought this an excellent description of how the disease moved around the world:

‘Influenza, the epidemic to the description of which this Volume is devoted, possesses, in this point of view, a special interest, being of all epidemics the most extensively diffused, and apparently the least liable to essential modification, either by appreciable atmospheric changes, or by hygienic conditions under the control of man. It is not like Smallpox, communicable by inoculation; and, however, its fatality may be influenced by defective drainage, it is not like Typhus, traceable to this neglect as its cause. Unlike Cholera, it outstrips in its course the speed of human intercourse. It does not, like Plague, desert for ages a country which it has once afflicted, nor is it accustomed, like the Sweating-Sickness, in any marked manner to limit its attack to particular nations or races of mankind’ (from the introduction)

In 1792 the text records a global epidemic:

‘towards the end of October and beginning of November, before the appearance of this fever of cold among men. This epidemic distemper, above described, spread itself over all Europe, and also infested the inhabitants of America; so that it was, perhaps, the most universal disease upon record. The first accounts we have of anything like it this last year in Europe, was in the middle of November, from Saxony, Hanover, and other neighbouring countries in Germany. It raged at one time in Edinburgh, and Basil in Switzerland. It appeared in London and Flanders after the first week in January; toward the middle of which it reached Paris; and, about the end of the same month, Ireland began to suffer. In the middle of February, Leghorn was attacked; and near the end of it, the people of Naples and Madrid were seized with it. In America, it began in New England about the middle of October, and travelled southward to Barbadoes, Jamaica, Peru, and Mexico, much at the same rate as it did in Europe’. (Page 62)

Pandemics are of course nothing new, but how we think about them changes over time so historical records are important to aid our current understanding. We may find it difficult to understand how in the ‘modern’ world we have not found the means of nipping them in the bud, but this text shows how hard they are to control.

You can access the UKMHL, with its 66,000 texts, for free, offering you a wonderful library to explore epidemics, and many other medical-related topics, during the lockdown.

By Peter Findlay

Digital Portfolio Manager, Jisc

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