Living through COVID-19: What can we learn from typhoid epidemics of the past?

by guest contributor Jacob Steere-Williams, PhD, Associate Professor of History, College of Charleston.

Join us for Steere-Williams’ talk on typhoid on September 23. 

For decades, thinking about and learning from past pandemics has largely been an academic exercise, one for historians and archivists who specialize in public health. Now, in the midst of a generation-defining pandemic, COVID-19, there has been an explosion of public interest in epidemics and epidemiology. Before 2020, few Americans outside of infectious disease specialists routinely spoke the words “contact tracing” and “case fatality,” or knew the difference between isolation and quarantine.

The recent surge in popular understandings of epidemics has centered on some familiar examples, such as the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, the mistakenly called “Spanish Flu.”[1] As this was the most significant pandemic of the 20th century, the comparisons make sense, and the public health struggle between individual rights and community health is as apt now as it was then. Other historians, seeing the rise of xenophobia as a cultural response to COVID-19 in the West, have perceptively turned our attention to 19th-century pandemics of cholera and bubonic plague. Then, as now, a uniquely durable, yet startlingly western approach to framing pandemics has been to blame Asian people and Asian cultural practices.[2] 

At a time when the cultural mileage of past pandemics is perhaps at its height in modern history, we might fruitfully turn to the history of a relatively unexplored disease, typhoid fever, to think about our current moment.

Typhoid fever is a food- and water-borne infectious disease, the most virulent of the Salmonella family. The disease continues to wreak havoc on the Global South, killing about 200,000 people each year. In the western world typhoid was at its height in the 19th century, when it was a ubiquitous and insidious reality in North America and Western Europe. In Britain, for example, typhoid annually struck up to 150,000 people, taking the lives of 20,000 each year.

Thomas Godart, “Head and Neck of a Patient Suffering from Typhoid Fever.” Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Typhoid’s patterns of distribution were erratic; it might spare a community for months or even years, then erupt as a local outbreak. Epidemiologists today discuss COVID-19 as a cluster disease, exploding in localized events not unlike the way that typhoid did in the past.

Interestingly, typhoid outbreaks continued after the introduction of early sanitary improvements such as toilets, pumped water, and sanitation systems. In the second half of the 19th century no infectious disease was as central to the rise of public health than typhoid. Typhoid was a model disease because the burgeoning group of public health scientists, the first to call themselves epidemiologists, saw that stopping typhoid’s different pathways—through food, water, and healthy human carriers—could transform the nation through preventive public health.[3]

“Avoid the Grip of the Typhoid Hand,” in G.S. Franklin, “Sanitary Care of Privies” (1899), from “Health and Sanitation: Disease and the Working Poor,” https://www.wm.edu/sites/wmcar/research/danvilledig/millworker-life/health-sanitation/index.php.

The story of typhoid in the 19th century is one deeply tied to the emergence of modern epidemiology, which George Buchanan, Chief Medical Officer of Britain’s central public health office, called “the minute observations of particular outbreaks.”[4] Epidemiological practice does not operate in a vacuum, then or now with COVID-19; it is inherently a political exercise. Everyday people, business owners, and politicians have to be convinced about the science of disease communication, requiring complex rhetorical strategies that tell us a great deal about the inherent struggles of public health.

“Transmission of Typhoid Fever,” in George Whipple, Typhoid Fever; Its Causation, Transmission, and Prevention (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1908).

__________

Notes

[1] See, for example, a recent blog post in Nursing Clio: Jessica Brabble, Ariel Ludwig, and Thomas Ewing, “‘All the World’s a Harem’: Perceptions of Masked Women During the 1918–19 Flu Pandemic,” Nursing Clio. https://nursingclio.org/2020/09/08/all-the-worlds-a-harem-perceptions-of-masked-women-during-the-1918-1919-flu-pandemic/.

[2] Catherine E. Shoichet, “What historians hear when Trump calls coronavirus ‘Chinese’ and ‘foreign,’” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/12/us/disease-outbreaks-xenophobia-history/index.html.

[3] Graham Mooney, “How to Talk About Freedom During a Pandemic,” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/freedom-pandemic-19th-century/611800/.

[4] George Buchanan, “On the Dry Earth System of Dealing with Excrement,” Annual Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council for 1870. Parliamentary Papers. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1871, 97.

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About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, which includes the Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health and the history of the book. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curatorial and conservation professionals, and the general public. The Center’s Library is one of the largest medical collections in the United States open to the general public, to whom it has been available since 1878.

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