The debate between contagionists and anticontagionists over the transmission of infectious diseases played a major role in nineteenth-century medical discourse. On the one side were those who believed that diseases could be spread by infected material, perhaps including people and inanimate objects, and on the other those who subscribed to the more venerable miasmatic theory. Although the contagionist view would be substantially vindicated by Robert Koch's germ theory of disease, it is important not to simply ignore the arguments put forward by the anticontagionists. Although these were based on science that has since been disproven, the concrete proposals put forward by scientists like Max von Pettenkofer marked a major step forward for public health policy. In particular, the anticontagionists' emphasis on the environmental factors of disease control continues to provide an important lesson.
This course consists of an international analysis of the impact of epidemic diseases on western society and culture from the bubonic plague to HIV/AIDS and the recent experience of SARS and swine flu. Leading themes include: infectious disease and its impact on society; the development of public health measures; the role of medical ethics; the genre of plague literature; the social reactions of mass hysteria and violence; the rise of the germ theory of disease; the development of tropical medicine; a comparison of the social, cultural, and historical impact of major infectious diseases; and the issue of emerging and re-emerging diseases.
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