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A brief survey of Epidemics from Prehistoric period to COVID 19

par Pierre-Alain Lévy

From our archives, originally published in march 2020.

Epidemics and pandemics, we thought they were stored in the archives of history. We believed in our certainties that we had taken fire from heaven, Prometheans, assured of an almost immortal life. We already thought of ourselves beyond, time and space. We projected ourselves into eternity light years away.

This Coronavirus COVID 19 has just tackled us on the ground. We were hoping for the glare, the suns that show off, it is the mud and the earth in our mouths that we find. Some would see there I do not know what moralizing and religious congruences, the poor in their powerlessness to think and abandoning themselves to small paralyzing intellectual cowardice!

Without however marrying these metaphysical doctrinaires, in the political field already we see dawning under the guise of ecology or pseudo civic morality of the upheavals some of which could be akin to this irrational sordid in search of propitiatory victims.

We had forgotten the Death, or rather we had kept it hidden that it was in white and sterile hospital rooms, very far from our daily life. The hearses dear to French singer and poet Georges Brassens have not longer punctuated our walks in the streets of our cities; they are suffocating under the devouring flow of cars that suffocate us.

Olécio partenaire de Wukali

We had also forgotten history, this knowledge which allows us to draw parallels, to weigh with an assay balance and to relativize. Here are the epidemics where we die in the hundreds of thousands and millions. Interesting to remember!

The force of oblivion is a fuel that powers our fleeting lives. Perhaps a form of resilience!

Yet there it is the gruesome ghost, the bitch! And it took a butterfly flap in China for the pandemic tsunami to sweep across our lands, territories and societies.


The Plague of Athens 430 BC. J.-C
Antonine plague
The plague of Cyprien
Justinian’s Plague
The Black Death 1346-1353
The plague of Cocoliztli
The Great Plague in London 1665-1666
The Great Plague of Marseille
The Russian Plague 1770-1772
The Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic. 1793
The flu epidemic. 1889-1890
The plyomielite epidemic of 1916
1918-1919, the Spanish Flu
Asian flu, swine flu, Hong Kong flu, Ebola, AIDS
By way of a hasty and provisional conclusion

A brief history retrospective of these epidemics that fractured time

The Prehistoric period

Paleopathology is a science that studies ancient diseases, those that touch on prehistory. The first gatherings of populations arrived in the Neolithic period, we speak then of proto-urban civilizations. Promiscuity between humans and animals is the rule.

In Europe different cultures coexisted and often disappeared without anyone being able to know the reason. For example, the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture which stretched 5,000 to 6,800 years ago from the Carpathians to Ukraine. The plague is often blamed. The same is true in Sweden where, a few years ago, a grave was discovered at the Gökhem site containing 78 skeletons pell-mell. DNA studies have determined that this population had been affected by a variant of the plague, not bubonic but pulmonary.

Hamin Mangha’s site

In northeast China, similarly, researchers discovered a 5000-year-old home on Hamin Mangha’s site containing 97 skeletons of children, young adults, and middle-aged people aged 19 to 35. They are believed to have perished as a result of what is cautiously called a cataclysm, possibly an epidemic. Another Chinese site, that of Miaozigou, located not far from Hamin Mangha, had also been exhumed skeletons buried in the same manner in number and which seem to support the idea of a regional epidemic.

The Plague of Athens. 430 B-C

Greek vase. 480-440 BC. Louvre museum.

Thucydides informed us in The Peloponnesian War on this epidemic which ravaged Athens during the summer 430 BC and caused tens of thousands of deaths. The time of the Periclean age passed. It’s the time of war between Athens and Lacedaemon (Sparta). . “His story, which includes an acutely precise clinical report, as well as the analysis of the moral and political consequences of the disease, has as its guiding theme the double siege that surrounds the City: that of war and the epidemic, with the physiological degradation it causes; as a counterpoint to the degradation of souls “(Alice Gervais in: About the Plague of Athens: Thucydite and the literature of the epidemic. Association Bulletin Guillaume Budé / 1972).

Antonine plague

First of all, an essentially linguistic confusion should be avoided. For centuries in the Greek or Latin world and later in medieval Christianity, there are no precise words to designate the frightful disease that shattered people and territories.

According to the Historical Dictionary of the French Language (Dictionnaires Le Robert), when defining the word plague: “the word, in French as in Latin, has long been applied to any disease characterized by very high mortality, as well as the plague of ‘Athens (429 BC) and that of Rome (165 AD) were perhaps epidemics of cholera and typhus

Antonine plague raged in the Roman Empire during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, between 165 and 190. Its name is eponymous to the then ruling dynasty, that of the Antonines. It was brought back to Rome in the rubble of the Roman army returned from a military campaign against the Parthians. It appeared to have been an epidemic of smallpox. British historian April Pudsey (University of Manchester. Disability in Antiquity, Routledge, 2017) claimed more than 5 million lives. This epidemic was positioned at the peak of the Pax Romana, which it will be the spur of the decline.

The plague of Cyprien

This “plague” is rife around the Mediterranean world. It wreaked havoc on the Roman Empire after 240 AD. It owes its name to Saint Cyprien, a Berber who converted to Christianity and then bishop of Carthage, who described its premonitory symptoms, for him of an apocalyptic end (De Mortalitate).It could be smallpox or perhaps, according to specialists, Filovirus, a kind of hemorrhagic fever like Ebola.

Cyprien’s description is indeed terrifying: “the intestines, relaxed in a constant flow, discharge bodily force; that a fire from the marrow is fermenting into injuries of the hawks; that the intestines are shaken with continuous vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the blood injected; that in some cases the feet or parts of the limbs are removed by the contagion of sick putrefaction; that from the weakness resulting from the mutilation and loss of the body, either the gait is weakened, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight clouded …

Justinian’s Plague

With this plague which is deployed in the Byzantine Empire (541_542), it is indeed there the plague as we call it today, pestis inguinaria or pestis glandularia in Latin. The Byzantine Empire led by Justinian (482-565) was at the height of its glory. This pandemic circulated widely for years around the Mediterranean basin.

It is estimated that it killed nearly 25 million people. Itncirculated by taking trade routes, was born in Egypt, reached Constantinople which will lose 40% of its population. Evil arrived in Gaul, touches affected Arles, Bourges, Clermont-Ferrand, Dijon. In the East too, on the borders of the Levant, in Libya, in Syria, in Persia it is wreaking havoc. The Plague causes chaos all at once demographic, administrative, political, economic, military and social.

If they did not all die, all were struck …( Jean de La Fontaine: Les animaux malades de la Peste) Justinian was impacted but succeeded to get out of it and entrusted Theodosius with the task of “drawing from the Treasury the money necessary to distribute to those in need

There is only one way to escape this cataclysm, that given by Hippocrates, “Go fast and far” summarized a few centuries later in Latin under the acronym CLT “Cito, longe fugeas, et tarde redeas” or more simply “cito, longe, tarde“. We can still discover it engraved on some corner pieces of doors of old residences in Italy.

The Black Death

Tremble good people! A boat docked in Marseille was enough for the plague to fulminate. It will kill almost 40% of the European population, will be cataclysmic, will cause a dilution of the society of the time.

Mass grave, Black Death (1348) found in Toulouse in 2014
© Archeodunum sas/ Gourvennec Michaël

One does not know how to contain it and treat those who are affected. Ignorance in turn will be a matrix of fears, hatred, massacres. The excited populace will attack the foreigners, the “eternal” eternal victim, the Jews designated as the evil and satanic authors of the contamination.

Some historians believe that this epidemic had the effect of allowing the advent of the Renaissance. In support of their thesis, the scarcity of labor, the shortage of food and raw materials, the territorial confinement which harms trade, remains only to charter a few naves and vessels and take the sea ​​to seek fortune towards eastern lands that we hope to discover. Cipango on the one hand a few centuries earlier celebrated by Marco Polo or the Eldorado of America

The Cocoliztli epidemia

We haven’t finished debating the Spanish Conquest in America. In the field of health, cross contamination was the rule between the Indians and the Iberian Conquerors.

In America, it is not less than 12 epidemics which over time under the name of Cocoliztli fever and from 1520 will rage. It seems that it was, according to the latest approaches in science and history, a hemorrhagic fever. Climatic factors, droughts, were observed during these periods.

It should be noted that this cocoliztli fever mainly affected Indian populations. A Spanish doctor Juan Ortiz describes the disease as follows: « envió Dios tal enfermedad sobre ellos que de quarto partes de indios que avia se llevó las tres » (God sent such a disease on them that three out of four disappeared). The slightest biological resistance of the Indian populations confronted with the armies of the King of Spain and with the exogenous European populations will lead to the disappearance of the great indigenous empires.

Following the conquistadors, the male treponema will spread throughout Europe.

“Spanish evil” meant syphilis, but in the same way it changed its name according to the nation on which we wanted to cast the stigma …

The French called it the evil of Naples, the Italians of course called it the French evil, “the Muscovites speak of Polish evil, the Poles of the German evil, the Germans of French evil – the latter name also winning the votes of English (French pox) and Italians (which is a problem). Flemings and Dutch say “bad Spanish”, like the Maghrebis. The Portuguese say “poor Castilian”, while Japanese and people of the East Indies say “poor Portuguese”. Only the Spanish say nothing. Weird … ”(Source: Le Mal de Naples-Histoire de la syphilis. Claude Quétel. Seghers editions. 1986). The English sometimes even called it “Bordeaux sickness », and I would not want to hurt one my brilliant columnists from Aquitaine and close friend.

The Great Plague in London 1665-1666

According to figures at the time, 68,596 dead were the victims of this plague which spread in the streets infested with London rats. Medical observations by state doctor Thomas Syndenham, who stayed on site to care for the sick while King Charles II and his court sought refuge at Hampton Court, provide documented information. The city of London was withdrawn, cut off from the world. Meanwhile, the Grand Council of Scotland closed its border with England.

Barely recovered from this health disaster, it is the fire that will take hold of the city from Sunday September 2 to Wednesday September 5, 1666 and which will start in the sector of Baker Street… Definitely it will be necessary to wait later, much more late, Holmes, Sherlock Holmes to restore luster to the neighborhood…

The Great Plague of Marseille

Painting by Michel Serre (1658-1733). Marseille City Hall during the Great Plague of 1720.
Museum of Fine Arts of Marseille

On May 25, 1720, the merchant ship Grand Saint Antoine docked at the port of Marseille, it came from the Levant and made stops in different countries. She carried cotton balls and silk fabrics which are to be sold at the Baucaire fair.

According to the regulations of the time, the captain of a boat must present upon arrival at the port health office where he shoulf present in support of letters patent. During the voyage at sea, nine deaths on board were recorded, due to “malignant pestilence fever“. The city of Livorno in Tuscany refused to allow the captain of the ship to enter the port. When he finally arrived in Marseille, the crew and passengers are quarantined on Jarre Island and then on Pomègues Island, until then there is no talk of plague at all. The goods are landed.

Several ship’s boys died, more than a month has passed since the arrival of the ship, plague cases are detected in the city. Prophylactic measures are ordered to stem the epidemic which settled: buried corpses covered with quicklime, doors and windows of the dwellings where plague-stricken people lived. The plague flew and spread like black ink over Marseille and Provence. It will take almost two years to completely disappear. The city of Marseille at the time had 30 to 40,000 victims out of a global population of 90,000. It will be the last plague epidemic in Europe.

The Russian Plague 1770-1772

One could not imagine that the great Russian Empire was in turn also affected by an epidemic of plague, already in the middle of the 17th century then 100 years later under the reign of Catherine II (1729-1796).

Catherine the Great is very well known to us, in particular thanks to the correspondence she had with Voltaire (remember that she spoke and wrote French perfectly.) In one of his many letters with the sovereign Voltaire thus wrote on November 20, 1770: “We always speak of plague in Germany, we fear it, we demand health tickets everywhere, and we do not think that if we had helped your majesty to drive out the Turks from Europe this year, we would have forever chased the plague with them.

It’s that it wreaks havoc on the beggar and that it takes its ease in this great Russian Empire. It is estimated that there will be nearly 100,000 deaths there. The great Catherine is an energetic, “enlightened” sovereign (for example, she did not hesitate in 1778 to be vaccinated, the term was quite new, against smallpox).

One of his generals, Lieutenant-General Christopher von Stoffeln who fought the Ottomans in Moldavia-Wallachia had reported to the sovereign on January 8, 1770 the worrying health situation he was observing. Despite the reiteration of three other letters of the same nature, the imperial reaction only came in the summer. The armies encountered an even more dangerous and imperceptible enemy which was wreaking havoc on their ranks.

Riot in Moscow during the plague epidemic

Catherine decided: the governor of Kiev was ordered to establish a containment zone preventing to go through, travelers’ luggage and their clothes were fumigated or burned. Moscow was quarantined, juniper fires were lit in each district, the corpses that littered the streets could no longer be removed, and cemeteries were opened beyond the walls.

Catherine ordered all of Moscow’s productive activities to leave the city. Riots took place, Bishop Ambroise died there, he was massacred while he encouraged the faithful not to assemble.

Catherine entrusted to her protege Count Grigori Grigorievitch Orlov Григорий Григорьевич Орлов, in charge of managing the crisis. He set up a health commission made up of doctors and followed their instructions rigorously. On a triumphal arch built at the request of Catherine to Tsarskoye Selo (Екатерининский дворец), one can read the following inscription engraved in the stone: “Orlov saved Moscow from misfortune” (Орловым от беды избавленаМ

The Philadelphia Yellow fever epidemic. 1793

Panic in Philadelphia

America was then a very young nation when an epidemic of Yellow fever broke out in the city of Philadelphia in 1793. Philadelphia (name which means “fraternal friendship” in Greek ) then served as the capital. The summer had been very hot and humid, the city was infested with mosquitoes from the surrounding marshes, the epidemic claimed nearly 5,000 victims out of a global population of 50,000.

All activity ceased, it was fright, the number of orphans exploded, the inhabitants left the city as they could, everyone just like the authorities, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington.

It is also said that the disease arrived in the city transmitted by refugees from the French island of Santo Domingo and fleeing the Revolution. The black population is called on massively to replace the failing staff, believing that they were naturally resistant to the disease. They serve as carters, caregivers, coffin manufacturers, gravediggers.

The flu epidemic of 1889-1890

Woodcut by Pépin-Malherbe (E. Guillaumin), 1889.

Lexical convenience requires, each epidemic is given a name, this end-of-century epidemic is thus called the Russian Flu epidemic. All activity ceased, it was fright, the number of orphans exploded. It is estimated that it will claim close to one million lives worldwide. It will develop at high speed over time as well as in space due to the proliferation of new means of transport such as the railroad. Its original focus was located in Siberia. All continents are affected, after Europe, it is America with the United States, then Australia and New Zealand, in Africa it is called “white man’s disease”.

The 1916 polio epidemic

It is not the first time that this hitherto largely unknown and poorly identified disease has struck. We then talk about it under the name of Heine’s disease, it affects children very hard.

It was in New York in the summer of 1916 that it was to rage. Hospitals will be quickly overwhelmed, children with respiratory problems are rushed to medical services, many die. Panic sets in. A deleterious climate is created, the Italian community in the city is pilloried, accused of being responsible. Once again we are attacking “the other”, the evil one, the culprit. The magic in the heads becomes science for the donkeys, it is the time of the absurd, of the inept, it is necessary to find against all reason that, that, the object which is responsible, it is of no matter what!

We incriminate books (this is not new and it will happen 20 years later in Germany), but also food, milk, sugar, blueberries. Cats also suffer from the holocaust, nearly 40,000 of them will be slaughtered !

1918-1919 Spanish Flu

Poster distributed in Chicago theaters in 1918 warning against influenza
More than a century has passed and yet it is in our heads. According to the Institut Pasteur, it would have killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide, far more than the First World War killed, other epidemiologists claim up to 100 million people!

Contrary to what one would be tempted to believe in the mention of its name, it was not of Spanish origin. It owed its name to the fact that at the time when it appeared in Europe, the war was raging, that censorship watched whatever the camps, and that Spain, a neutral country, was the only country to mention it in its newspapers and to report on the evolution of the pandemic.

We know more about it today. It has long been believed to be an H1N1 avian flu, most likely born in China and transiting in the United States before impacting Europe with the arrival of American soldiers. It mainly affected the age group between 15 and 34 years old. Nearly one billion people were infected between March 1918 and March 1919. In France alone, it caused almost 400,000 deaths. Guillaume Apollinaire died, other famous personalities, Edmond Rostand or the painter Egon Schiele and his wife.

What do we know about this Spanish Flu virus. A remarkable article was published in the United States by the CDC on the subject. We cannot recommend it highly enough. A thousand times more exciting than an excellent, thrilling detective novel! Here is a summary

Brevig Mission is a small Alaskan village of 80 people. From November 15 to 20, 1918, the Spanish flu epidemic struck the hamlet, 72 dead … The corpses will be buried in a common grave dug in the ground in theground of which temperature never exceeds 0 °, the permafrost.

In 1951 a Swedish microbiologist, Johan Hultin, on a doctoral thesis at the University of Iowa got wind of the information. The bodies of the inhabitants of this small village victims of the Spanish flu were buried in frozen ground. Perhapswould it be possible to recover biological traces to study the virus. After a chaotic and stronger journey than that of Phileas Fogg’s (Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne), he managed to get what he had come for. Alas his research will not succeed, scientific advances were not there yet to allow it …

Time goes by … 1997.

Jeffery Taubenberger is a young researcher in molecular pathology, he has just published an article in the journal SCIENCE where he summarized his work. His team sequenced nine fragments of a ribovirus recovered from the body of a young soldier who died of the Spanish flu and was buried in Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

When Johan Hultin discovered the information, he immediately contacted Jeffery Taubenberger, told him about the Brevig Mission and the bodies preserved in the permafrost. The two scientists are on the same wavelength and decided to leave for Alaska. They obtained the agreement of the town council of the hamlet to investigate the grave marked with crosses. Johan Hultin was then 72 years old!

At 7 feet deep they exhumed the body of an Inuit woman whom they called “Lucy”, they learnt that she was obese and that she was in her twenties. Her lungs remained in perfect condition. Ten days later at the Institute of Pathology of the Armed Forces where Jeffry Taubenberger worked, the information is given: the viral genetic material of the 1918 virus is in good condition!

Two years later a publication is issued. We learn that the beginnings of the infection began between 1900 and 1915. The virus is more likely to be found in humans and mammals than avian only. Research is also mainly focused on the HA surface proteins of the virus. In 2000 other works were published. The integrity of the genetic sequencing of the NA virus is obtained. A phylogenetic analysis (branch of genetics dealing with genetic modifications within animal or plant species) then makes it possible to determine that the NA gene of the virus was localized between mammals and birds and that it would only have fully contaminated mammals in 1918, when the pandemic took shape. However, the researchers failed to determine what were the pathways from avian contamination to human contamination.

The rest of the work around this virus and its reconstruction in the laboratory could be like a spy or even science fiction story for anyone unfamiliar with the world of biology.

Asian flu, swine flu, Hong Kong flu, Ebola, AIDS

The first cases of the Asian influenza A (H2N2) epidemic that struck the world in 1957 and 1958 were reported in Singapore and Hong Kong. It is estimated that it killed more than 1.1 million people. Other large-scale epidemics followed, swine flu and Hong Kong flu (1968), Sras.

Ebola is of a different nature. It is mainly a hemorrhagic fever. The case fatality rate is between 30 and 90% and the virus can infect both humans and primates. It owes its name to the Ebola river in the People’s Republic of Congo where it was discovered in 1976

The natural reservoir host for the Ebola virus remains unknown. However, based on the evidence and the nature of similar viruses, researchers believe that the virus is of animal origin and that bats are the most likely reservoir. Four of the five viral strains occur in an animal host from Africa. The Institut Pasteur in Paris and the Institut Pasteur in Dakar are at the forefront of the epidemic of hemorrhagic fever due to the Ebola virus which is currently raging in south-eastern Guinea

The natural reservoir of the virus would be the bat. The Ebola virus was discovered in 1976 during two epidemic outbreaks in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since then, around twenty epidemic outbreaks have occurred in Central Africa. In December 2013, the virus reached West Africa, a region previously untouched by the disease. In 2014, it caused the largest epidemic known so far. The challenge of current research is therefore to develop a vaccine, treatments and diagnostic tools for the treatment and detection of the disease. (Source: Institut Pasteur).

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Discovered in Haiti, then in the USA in the early 1980s, it spread around the world and spread terror in the populations it infected. The green monkey is the natural carrier of the AIDS virus. It is not known how it passed from animal to man. AIDS creates an immunodeficiency which weakens the patient. It is transmitted sexually, through direct contact with blood, during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.

By way of a hasty and provisional conclusion …

Here we are, at last, at the end of a long journey, there are some more pleasant ones, I will gladly grant you … We have crossed borders, spaces of time and territories a bit like Sirius. This is a historical approach, we wanted it to be the most complete. This is not an exhaustive list of epidemics far from it. Many other epidemics are not referenced and our choice is subjective.

These evocations, in addition to the information of a historical order and therefore cultural, may allow us to distance ourselves from the tragic event that strikes us with the Coronavirus COVID 19 and if our article tends to that, it will be good!

  • Header illustration / Nurses and doctors protecting themselves from the Spanish flu. April 1919 © State Archives of New South Wales, Australia. NRS4481_ST6679

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