Epidemics, or high-impact infectious diseases, have had an historical impact equal to that of wars, revolutions and economic crises. This course looks at the various ways in which these diseases have affected societies in Europe and North America from 1600 to the present. Contrary to optimistic mid-twentieth-century predictions, epidemic diseases still pose a major threat to human well-being. Diseases will be considered not only in their biological effects, but also as social, political and cultural phenomena. Attention will therefore be given to the different forms of human response to epidemics, from medical science to artistic representations.
This course consists of an international analysis of the impact of epidemic diseases on western society and culture from the bubonic plague to HIV/AIDS and the recent experience of SARS and swine flu. Leading themes include: infectious disease and its impact on society; the development of public health measures; the role of medical ethics; the genre of plague literature; the social reactions of mass hysteria and violence; the rise of the germ theory of disease; the development of tropical medicine; a comparison of the social, cultural, and historical impact of major infectious diseases; and the issue of emerging and re-emerging diseases.
Course Structure: This Yale College course, taught on campus twice per week for 50 minutes, was recorded for Open Yale Courses in Spring 2010.