Humans and Health

Pandemics Throughout Time

Photo of floating viral particles
Jamey Heron-Waterhouse

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you have survived the COVID-19 chaos and made it through to the other side! Though some of us may still be reeling from the events of the last couple of years, and many of us still suffer from COVID-19’s aftermath, it’s times like these where we look to history and think, ‘hey it could be worse!’ From bloodletting to new sewer systems, pandemics through time have been dealt with in a variety of odd ways that’ll make you thank modern medicine!

The Black Death

Reaching Europe in October 1347, the Black Death or Black Plague was spread through the air or from bites from infected fleas or rats. Symptoms of the black death were swellings over the body that seeped blood and pus… gross. These were accompanied by fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhoea as well as aches and pains in the body. The plague took about three days from first signs of infection to kill someone suffering from it.

Treatments and preventions:

Bloodletting – essentially the withdrawing of blood from the body originating from the medieval theory that illness was a result of an imbalance of the 4 humours (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm) in the body. The blood then was drained using blades, leeches, or cups to rebalance the humours. This was obviously not an effective treatment, but the medical practitioners at the time were not aware of the cause of the plague so they just thought ‘hey, stick a leech on it and see what happens…’ as we all do.

Isolation – ahhh isolation we know you well. Ignoring the COVID-19 flashbacks, isolation was a useful tool for lowering transmission rates of the plague. Even doctors and priests avoided seeing other people!

Herbs – the idea of using herbs to prevent the Black Death stemmed from the belief that miasma, a bad air or odour, caused disease. This is also the cause of the infamous beaked plague masks as plague doctors filled the beak with perfume and herbs so as not to breathe in the bad air. Who said high fashion can’t be functional?

Flagellation – when discussing 14th century England, it is almost impossible to avoid the impact of religion on most aspects of life. This includes healthcare, as flagellations – meaning whippings – were carried out to invite God to show mercy on them. Flagellants would whip themselves and others as punishment, inviting God’s mercy and thus avoiding the plague.

You can thank the cows for the modern day vaccine!


Smallpox has been found to have existed in as early as ancient Egyptian times but spread wildly through Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. Symptoms of smallpox in early stages are headaches, body aches, fever and occasionally vomiting. Later a rash forms in the mouth and on the tongue, and then spreads to the skin and eventually develops into pustules (again, gross).


The smallpox outbreak in Britain eventually led to the creation of the vaccine as Edward Jenner discovered that milkmaids that suffered from cowpox, a much less fatal virus, did not then suffer from smallpox. Jenner then gave the first vaccine of sorts to a young boy by giving him cowpox and then tried to infect him with smallpox but couldn’t, proving that contracting a lesser version of the illness allowed immunity. So, I guess in some ways you can thank the cows for the modern day vaccine!


In 1831, cholera spread in Victorian London, and claimed 50,000 lives across the UK. Cholera is a disease usually spread in unclean water, causing diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. It was spread in 19th century London due to the piling up of human waste in the overpopulated slums, meaning human waste overflowed into the water systems.

Treatment (or lack thereof):

Doctors were unaware of how to treat cholera as they were unaware of its cause. Symptoms like vomiting, diarrhoea, and nausea led to dehydration but it was the water that was infecting people! Eventually, after the Great Stink of 1858 (pretty much just a summer where everything smelt bad because human waste had been dumped into the Thames, the main water supply of London, for decades) the sewer network for London was built and the cholera outbreaks reduced!

Doctors urged people to stay inside (sound familiar?)

The Russian Flu

The Russian Flu, called the first-ever modern flu pandemic, hit many major areas of Europe, and even affected the Tzar of Russia, the King of Belgium, and the Emperor of Germany! This virus, like the despised COVID-19, affected the lungs, and had common flu-like symptoms, leading to many deaths related to the lungs, e.g. bronchitis or pneumonia. The virus then finally hit America, affecting people closer to major railway lines, roads and rivers, proving that human contact was what spread the flu.


Many people were said to have bought quinine to treat the virus, a compound from Cinchona tree bark, commonly found in tonic water; however, medical professionals in America at the time suggested that letting the virus run its course was the best way to go. In Europe, changes in atmospheric conditions were found to influence the symptoms of the flu, so doctors urged people to stay inside (sound familiar?).

Spanish Influenza

The Spanish Influenza of 1918 infected an estimated 500 million people (and almost killed Edward Cullen!). Symptoms were those of the common flu: chills, fever and fatigue; however, in more severe cases, the victim’s skin would turn blue, and their lungs would fill with a fluid that suffocated them within hours or days of developing symptoms. The flu was spread through respiratory droplets in the air and on surfaces.


There were no vaccines or drugs that effectively treated the flu, so people were ordered to wear masks and many places like theatres and schools were shut (insert COVID-19 flashbacks here).


HIV/AIDS has claimed 36.3 million lives so far and continues to impact many people.

More information on HIV/AIDS:

HIV – Human Immunodeficiency Virus

AIDS – Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome

HIV targets the immune system, weakening people’s defences against infections by destroying and impairing the function of cells. After initial infection, symptoms seem flu-like, and can eventually lead to diarrhoea, a cough, fever, weight loss and swollen lymph nodes. HIV can lead to AIDS if untreated, identified by the development of certain cancers and other clinical manifestations. The rise of the pandemic began in the 1980s and primarily, but not exclusively, affected gay men. By the end of the 80s, 100,000 cases of AIDS had been reported and was even declared as a threat to U.S. national security by Bill Clinton in April 2000.


There is currently no treatment for HIV, so I urge you to click the NHS link and educate yourself on prevention of HIV. Currently there are drugs available that stop transmission, so that people with HIV can stop the spread of the virus. There are also drugs available that stop the virus replicating in the body, to prevent further damage.

I think that the general message to take away from this is wash your hands, stay clean and protect yourself where necessary so that we don’t all get locked inside again!

Jamey Heron-Waterhouse

Featured Photo by Fusion Medical Animation from Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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