It’s been 100 years since Mary Mallon (infamously known as Typhoid Mary) was arrested and imprisoned for the second and final time for spreading typhoid through her work as a cook, but 2014’s Ebola crisis and this year’s particularly nasty flu prove that infectious diseases are anything but history — though their history can make a pretty fascinating course of study. (Not to mention entertaining reading if you do find yourselves spending a lot of time in doctors' waiting rooms this winter.)
The Black Death :: 1348
Record-keeping wasn’t centralized in the 14th century, but historian estimate that the bubonic-turned-pneumonic plague killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million people in Europe and Asia between 1347 and 1351. (That’s 25 to 50 percent of the population at that time — yikes.) The situation was so bad that the word quarantine was coined then, referring to the 40-day offshore waiting period the city imposed on incoming ships.
In The Doomsday Book, 22nd century historian Kivrin travels back to the Middle Ages on a research project, but instead of ending up at the turn of the century, she finds herself in 14th century England right at the beginning of the plague outbreak. She’s got all the relevant shots and training, but nothing could have prepared her for the devastation of life in plague-time.
The Great Plague :: 1665
The last of the great plague epidemics in England ended a wave of outbreaks that had been going on since 1499 and may have killed as much a quarter of 17th century London’s population. (Historians estimate that between 75,000 and 100,000 people out of London’s 450,000 population perished during the outbreak.)
At the Sign of the Sugared Plum tells the story of the plague’s last outbreak in 1665 London. Country girl Hannah is thrilled to come to work in her sister’s candy shop in bustling London, but the looming menace of the plague slowly seeps into everyday life. (I especially liked that the chapters began with bits from Pepys’s Diary.)
When a bolt of infected fabric from London was delivered to the village of Eyam north of the city, the townsfolk there voluntarily sealed themselves off from the rest of the world to prevent the spread of the plague. (Their decision probably saved thousands of lives, though it was a death sentence for many of the people who lived there.) The Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague is set in Eyam during this time and told from the perspective of a young housemaid who sees both the incredibly generosity and kindness and the cruelty and horror of people faced with almost certain death.
If you’re not plague-d out yet, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year records his family’s memories of the plague year. (Defoe was only five years old during the outbreak.) The recentness of the events comes through in the details.
Yellow Fever :: 1793
Almost a tenth of the population of Philadelphia died during the yellow fever epidemic before a cold front helped take out the infected mosquitoes that carried it. The first cases of yellow fever were reported in the summer of 1793; by mid-October, the “American plague” was killing 100 people a day.
Laurie Halse Anderson makes the history personal in Fever: 1793. Fourteen-year-old Mattie is working hard to make her family’s small coffee shop a success, but when her family servant and friend dies of the fever and her mother becomes ill, Mattie and her grandfather join the scores of people fleeing the city. Things don’t go as planned, and when Mattie finally finds her way home, nothing is the same.
Cholera :: 1854
What’s great about London’s 1854 outbreak of cholera — no, really, bear with me! — is that it’s one of the first times an epidemic got shut down by science. John Snow, an anesthesiologist, theorized that cholera was spread by infected water not bad air, as current science suggested. As the outbreak raged, Snow tested his theory on the ground, successfully proving that a contaminated pump was the root of the problem.
The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel is historical fiction for the science geek, as a mudlarking orphan helps physician John Snow work to determine the true cause of the cholera epidemic attacking the city.
The Plague :: 1900
Did you know that the plague struck the United States in the early 20th century? A ship from Hong Kong brought the plague to San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1899, and though official channels denied it for public relations reasons, 119 people died before a change in policy effected medical treatment for those affected.
In Chasing Secrets, a 13-year-old girl, who’d rather go on calls with her doctor father than learn how to be a proper young lady at her fancy private school, gets to put her scientific knowledge to work trying to figure out what’s causing the quarantine in Chinatown so that she can help her new friend save his father.
Typhoid :: 1906
A New York cook named Mary Mallon became one of the first people caught at the intersection of emergency health measures and the right to privacy when she was discovered to be the cause of an outbreak of typhoid in a Long Island enclave. A carrier of the disease who also happened to be immune to it, Mallon refused to comply with health officials’ orders designed to stop the disease from spreading — she seems to have found it impossible to believe that a perfectly healthy person could infect other people — and ended up spending 25 years in medical isolation.
Deadly imagines what it was like to track the New York typhoid epidemic as a young scientific researcher. Prudence is thrilled to find a job in an actual laboratory — no easy task for a graduate of Mrs. Browning’s esteemed School for Girls — and even more thrilled when she gets to participate in real, important research tracking down the source of a typhoid epidemic. But when the source in question turns out to be an ordinary human being, deciding what to do next gets complicated.
For a nonfiction breakdown of the cholera outbreak, Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary focuses most of its attention on Mallon but also includes information about cholera’s pre-20th century significance and modern-day cholera science.
Spanish Influenza :: 1918
More people died in the flu outbreak of 1918-19 than in World War I — an estimated 50 million people died of the flu, and more than one-fifth of the world’s population was affected by the outbreak. In one year, life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years.
American Experience: Influenza 1918 offers a fascinating look at the mysterious and deadly 20th century influenza epidemic, starting with the first case reported in a Kansas army hospital and continuing until the epidemic’s unexplained end.
Gina Kolata paints the history of the influenza outbreak as a scientific detective story in Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It.
Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, Portland, Maine, 1918, part of the Dear America series, demonstrates how completely the influenza epidemic changed people’s lives. Lydia and her brother move from their comfortable Portland neighborhood to a Shaker community with their uncle after their parents die from the flu.
Polio :: 20th century
Polio’s highly infectious nature allowed it to sweep through towns and cities almost unchecked, making it one of the most feared epidemics of the 20th century. In 1952 alone, almost 60,000 children had polio; of those, more than 3,000 died and many were left with permanent disabilities.
In Risking Exposure, it’s Sophie’s experience with polio that leads her to recognize the evil of the Nazi regime in Germany. Though she survives and is given a job as a state photographer, she’s horrified to see pictures of her fellow polio survivors used to mock people with disabilities.
To Stand On My Own: The Polio Epidemic Diary of Noreen Robertson, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1937 is set during Canada’s Great Depression, when things are hard enough without polio. When Noreen contracts the disease, her family sends her away to recover, first to the local hospital, then to a farther-away treatment center. The stories of medical wards and patients struggling to walk again reflect the very real experiences of childhood polio survivors.
For a personal account of surviving polio, pick up Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio.
A version of this article was originally published in the winter 2015 issue of HSL.