A History of Pandemics

For many of us in the US, COVID-19 is the first pandemic that we have been directly affected by. But human history is filled with deadly pandemics that have wreaked havoc around the globe.

What is a Pandemic?

A pandemic is declared when an endemic spreads beyond a country’s borders and becomes a global issue. This is the worst-case scenario with infectious diseases, and this is exactly what coronavirus has become.

Epidemics became more common around 10,000 years ago when humans developed communities that allowed infectious diseases to spread more easily. This time period saw the first cases of major health concerns including tuberculosis, influenza, and smallpox. 

Here are some of the major pandemics throughout history that changed the world forever.

The World’s First Pandemic

The first recorded pandemic was in Athens in 430 B.C during the Peloponnesian War. The disease was first seen in Libya, Ethiopia, and Egypt, before devastating the city of Athens.

Symptoms of the deadly disease included fever, bloody throat and tongue, thirst, and lesions. The pandemic is now thought to have been typhoid fever. As many as 75,000 to 100,000 people died when the disease hit the Athenians, which was around 25% of the city’s population. The plague of Athens is credited as one of the reasons that the city was defeated by the Spartans.

The first pandemic

Antonine Plague

There have been several notable plagues throughout history and this 165 A.D pandemic may have been the first. The disease, which was potentially an early instance of smallpox, started with the Huns and soon spread to the Germans. It was then passed to the Roman Troops who transported the disease back to the Roman empire when they returned from battle.

This devastating plague is said to have continued until around 180 A.D and struck sufferers down with a fever, diarrhea, and a sore throat. If the patient survived for long enough they would also develop pus-filled sores. As many as five million people died including Emperor Marcus Aurelius.


Leprosy had already been a known disease for a long time, and there is evidence that it existed in India as far back as 2000 B.C. However, it grew into a full-scale pandemic in the Middle Ages where an estimated 19,000 were struck down by the bacterial disease.

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, leprosy spread along trade routes in Europe and as far as Jerusalem. Characterized by sores and deformities, those with the disease were ostracized by society. Sufferers were thought to be receiving divine punishment and they were often referred to as the living dead

During the 11th century, numerous leprosy-focused hospitals were opened to care for the rapidly increasing number of patients. Leprosy still affects tens of thousands of people each year and is often fatal without antibiotics.

Leprosy in the 11th century

The Black Death

This deadly pandemic is the second-largest outbreak of the bubonic plague and was responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million people. It was thought to have originated in Asia before moving west in caravans. Plague sufferers arrived in ships to Sicily in 1347 and from there the pandemic quickly spread throughout Europe.

Symptoms of The Black Death were horrifying: blood and pus-filled swellings developed, and victims also suffered fever, chills, vomiting, and diarrhea. The plague spread through the air as well as through the bite of infected fleas and rats.

The pandemic was finally controlled by isolating sailors to ensure that they were not infected with The Black Death. The period of isolation was 40 days, or a quarantine, which is where the term originates from.

Spanish Flu

The devastating 1918 flu’s first outbreak is still disputed to this day, but it’s said that the Spanish Flu name comes from the pandemic’s spread from Spain to France in November 1918. However, some experts believe that the virus actually originated in Kansas in the US.

The pandemic lasted more than 12 months and it’s estimated that 500 million people were infected with the virus, which was around one-third of the global population at the time. The death toll is said to have been 50 million, but other estimates put the number closer to 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. 

1918 Spanish Flu

Asian Flu

The Asian flu was first reported in Singapore in February 1957, then Hong Kong in April of the same year. By summer 1957 many coastal cities in the US were reporting cases.

The Asian flu hit England hard and 14,000 people lost their lives. A second wave then swept the globe in 1958. An estimated 1.1 million people died worldwide, and 116,000 of those deaths occurred in the United States. The pandemic was finally brought under control when a vaccine was developed. 


In 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) appeared in China. The viral outbreak was traced back to horseshoe bats and symptoms included respiratory problems, fever, aches, and a dry cough. The SARS virus is spread through respiratory droplets transmitted by coughs and sneezes, and the epidemic soon became a pandemic.

In total, 29 territories were affected, including the US. There were over 8,000 cases in total and it’s said that 11% of those cases died. Deaths were highest in China where the disease started, but countries as far away as South Africa and Canada also reported lives lost.

SARS 2003 outbreak

What Can We Learn From Past Pandemics

Coronavirus is a unique pandemic because never before has there been a health disaster in a time of so much travel and communication. However, there are still plenty of similarities that we can use to control the spread of the virus.

We’ve seen from The Black Death that social distancing and periods of isolation do help to slow the spread. We also know that inoculation works and that vaccinations are the best way to solve pandemics.

The key thing to take from the history of pandemics, though, is that they eventually end, and the global community recovers and rebuilds.


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