Pandemics: waves of disease, waves of hate from the Plague of Athens to A.I.D.S.


  • An earlier version of this article was presented as a plenary lecture to the Anglo-American Conference on ‘Health in history’ at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London in June 2011.


This article briefly surveys the history of pandemics in the West, contesting long-held assumptions that epidemics sparked hatred and blame of the ‘Other’, and that it was worse when diseases were mysterious as to their causes and cures. The article finds that blame and hate were rarely connected with pandemics in history. In antiquity, epidemics more often brought societies together rather than dividing them as continued to happen with some diseases such as influenza in modernity. On the other hand, some diseases such as cholera were more regularly blamed than others and triggered violence even after their agents and mechanisms of transmission had become well known.