When Epidemics Wreaked Havoc in America


The history of the United States is a history of overcoming disease. Deadly infectious diseases were once common in the U.S., until science conquered them. In today’s crisis, it’s worth recalling those celebrated victories.

The im­pact of dis­ease on Amer­i­can his­tory is a re­mark­ably un­der­stud­ied sub­ject. Text­books give it short shrift in com­par­i­son to po­lit­i­cal, mil­i­tary, diplo­matic and eco­nomic af­fairs, but the cat­a­log of key episodes is long. We must not for­get that the Eu­ropean con­quest and set­tle­ment of the Amer­i­cas were largely de­pen­dent on the deadly dis­eases the set­tlers brought; or that the grand plan of the Con­ti­nen­tal Con­gress to con­quer Que­bec in 1775 was halted, in large part, by a fear­ful small­pox out­break among the troops; or that more Amer­i­can sol­diers died from in­fluenza dur­ing World War I than from bat­tle wounds, in a pan­demic that killed up­ward of 50 mil­lion peo­ple.
Many won­der as well about the new dan­gers un­leashed by glob­al­iza­tion. Germs travel, and the con­se­quences can be se­vere. But that’s the way it’s been for cen­turies, at an ad­mit­tedly slower pace. Yel­low fever and malaria came to North Amer­ica from Africa; cholera and ty­phus rode the steam­ers and “cof­fin ships” that dis­charged im­mi­grant cargo at our shores. His­tory as­sures us that Covid-19 will be con­quered by sci­ence and that an­other virus, orig­i­nat­ing in a bat cave, a pig farm or an open-air poul­try mar­ket some­where in the world, will rise up to take its place. That’s the na­ture of the beast.
In times like this, when anx­i­ety turns so eas­ily to fear, it some­times helps to fo­cus upon an op­ti­mistic vi­sion of the fu­ture. For me, it’s the im­age of a war hero turned pres­i­dent tear­fully thank­ing a self­less re­searcher for help­ing to save the chil­dren of the world.


Want to receive more content like this in your inbox?