Exploring Human Potential

What Have We Learned About Epidemics in America?

Posted on | May 16, 2022 | Comments Off on What Have We Learned About Epidemics in America?

Mike Magee

Listen to Lecture (1 hour) HERE.

Last week’s online lecture, The History of Epidemics in America, sponsored by LeMoyne College, was a great success, attended by well over one hundred registrants. The transcript of the entire lecture is available online for those interested in a relatively deep dive. But for those who are interested and time-limited, here is the content of the final two slides summarizing in 15 learnings and takeaways from six months of research.

  1. Epidemics, as historians have emphasized are “social, political, philosophical, medical, and above all ecological events.”
  2. Competing and complimentary species cycles, in pursuit of nutrition and reproduction, maintain or distort ecological balance.
  3. Populations initially respond to epidemics with fear and flight. Scapegoating and societal turmoil are common features. Diseases disadvantage the poor, the weak, and those without immunity or prior exposure.
  4. Epidemics often travel side by side with warfare in transmitting and carrying microbes, and exposing vulnerable populations. Historically, epidemics have repeatedly played a role in determining the ultimate outcomes of warfare and conflict.
  5. Throughout history, scientific advances have – by enabling travel, congregation, and entry into virgin territory – triggered epidemics, but also provided the knowledge and tools to combat epidemics.
  6. Domestication and sharing of animals has enhanced the introduction of microbes to populations vulnerable to epidemic disease.
  7. Disease, accompanied by aggression, has been the major factor in the destruction of native cultures and has decimated native populations in the Americas.
  8. Slavery was in large part a response to workforce demands created by the epidemic eradication of native populations intended to serve as indentured servants on large agricultural plantations that raised and exported highly lucrative products into Old World markets.
  9. Epidemics often result in secondary consequences. For example, Yellow Fever and the defeat of the French in Saint-Domingue led to Napoleon’s divestment of the Louisiana Territory. Struggles to control and explain the Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 helped define the emergence of two very different branches of American Medicine over the next century.
  10. Scientists defining “germ theory” and social engineers leading the “sanitary movement” reinforced each other’s efforts to lessen urban centers vulnerability to epidemics.
  11. Immunization has a long and controversial history. As enlightened public policy, it has saved countless lives. It can, as illustrated by Justice John Marshall Harlan’s 1905 decision in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, create uncomfortable legal precedents and unintended consequences as in Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell.
  12. The U.S. scientific community prematurely declared victory over communicable diseases in the early 1960’s.
  13. In the wake of HIV/AIDS, some scientific leaders actively warned of ongoing population wide vulnerabilities beginning in 1992. 
  14. Genetic reverse engineering technologies empowering “gain-of-function” led to Consensus Statements in 2014 of potential disastrous consequences, and epidemics that would be difficult to control. High speed travel, climate change, warfare induced human migration, and dysfunctional health care systems make epidemics more likely in the future.
  15. The U.S. Health Care System in initial Presidential leadership, strategic operation, mitigation, and delivery of acute services failed on a large scale when confronted with the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of the over 1 million U.S. casualties were preventable.


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