The bubonic plague is the measure by which succeeding epidemics have long been measured. Its extreme virulence, horrible symptoms, and indiscriminate victim profile all contributed to making plague the archetypical worst-case scenario. For these same reasons, the plague is also an ideal test case for the thesis that epidemic diseases play a major role in shaping human history. Over the course of its three pandemics, the plague had major economic, religious, cultural and political implications for affected societies. In its wake, religious beliefs and medical practices were questioned, public authorities tested, and the social fabric strained.
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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