For Most of Human History, Outbreaks of Disease, Disability and Death Were Commonplace

In the study of history since the 1970s, pandemics and fearful disease outbreaks have largely been ignored, left out or forgotten because we thought medical science extinguished them. Communicable diseases like the bubonic plague, small pox, polio, typhus, tuberculosis, cholera, rheumatic fever, scarlet fever and yellow fever have been all but eliminated. Antibiotics were first developed in the 20th century and became widely available to Americans in the late 1940s. Vaccines were widely developed and distributed in the 1950s and 1960s. But suddenly the history of pandemics seems quite relevant.

Before the 1950s, pandemics were commonplace in human history. Diseases regularly disabled or killed millions of people each year and it was accepted as “normal.” Every few years panic ensued, quarantines were organized and economies were damaged, but that’s just the way life was. Death was frequently present, life was assumed to be naturally tragic, and only a few families escaped the loss of loved ones to disease. Average life expectancy in Greek and Roman times was 20 to 35 years. By the 1600s to the 1700s, it was nearly 40.

The main causes of death until the mid-1850s were infections, either from infectious diseases or infected wounds resulting from accidents or fighting. “Unhygienic living conditions and little access to effective medical care meant life expectancy was likely limited to about 35 years of age,” wrote gerontologist and evolutionary biologist Caleb Finch in a 2010 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, as recounted by Sharon Basaraba in VeryWellHealth on increases in life expectancy from prehistory through the modern era. “Though it’s hard to imagine, doctors only began regularly washing their hands before surgery in the mid-1800s,” she wrote.

A person who lived past age 65 in good health was an outlier until the 1940s. Thanks to improvements in sanitation, diet, and medical science, the average life-expectancy world-wide is now 72.6 years, and continues to grow each year. In the U.S., average life-expectancy is now 78.69 years., an educational resource by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, includes a timeline of dozens of pandemics and disease outbreaks going back to at least 1000 A.D, with click-throughs on how people coped.

Optimistically, the site focuses on the dozens of vaccines and cures that have been discovered over the centuries. However anxious we may feel about corona virus in 2020 or the coming plagues of the 21st century, we can know that in the long view of history, things are far better than they used to be. For most of human history, human life was relatively short, painful and miserable by contemporary standards. Keep that in mind if you suffer, in Shakespeare’s words, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

“The story of vaccines did not begin with the first vaccine–Edward Jenner’s use of material from cowpox pustules to provide protection against smallpox” in 1796, according to the site. “Evidence exists that the Chinese employed smallpox inoculation (or variolation, as such use of smallpox material was called) as early as 1000 CE. It was practiced in Africa and Turkey as well, before it spread to Europe and the Americas.”

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2 thoughts on “For Most of Human History, Outbreaks of Disease, Disability and Death Were Commonplace

  1. Pingback: Major Themes from 2000+ Years of World History and Globalization, Focusing on Asia and Africa – Jim Buie

  2. Pingback: Mini-course on Pandemics in History: What Can We Learn? – Jim Buie

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