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Plagues, History, and the Growth of Modern Science

An invitation from Mindy Rice to become a 'disease detective' traveling through history in this 10-hour course

As long as there has been life on Earth there has been disease. And as long as human beings have lived on Earth, we have been searching for ways to prevent illness. In recent months, humanity has faced a deadly illness: Covid-19. Scientists, epidemiologists, researchers, and doctors are struggling to understand this virus and hopefully stop it in its tracks. But did you know that disease detectives have existed since the time of the Ancient Greeks? Hippocrates, often called the father of modern medicine, suggested that the environment (or as he put it: On Airs, Waters and Places) played a role in who got sick and why. Hippocrates explained that every human being was composed of four bodily humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. But if one of these humors was out of balance? Too much black bile or blood? Result: Disease. Another Greek philosopher, Galen wrote the book that would become the European standard until the sixteenth century. Galen studied anatomy, performed surgery, and believed in the value of observation and logic. The works of Hippocrates and Galen influenced European ideas about the causes of illness, and its cure, for centuries.

When the Black Death struck Europe in the mid fourteenth century it was the works of Galen and Hippocrates that doctors relied on. In this course, students will learn how people in the past understood disease. Students will study to become medieval doctors. Students will read the works of Galen and Hippocrates, pass their exams, and start seeing patients. Some of these patients will appear with a new and deadly illness: the Plague. As the plague spread through Europe city governments, the Church and physicians tried new ways of containing the disease. They experimented with masks, quarantines, fumigation, herbs and closing the gates of the city. Actions that echo the efforts of today, as governments struggle to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Next stop in our history of medicine is the sixteenth century and the European Renaissance. It was a time of new ideas; Vesalius innovated in anatomy and spent his life correcting Galen’s book. But medical knowledge changed slowly. One physician stands out, mostly for his ability to argue with every medical professional in Europe: Paracelsus. Instead of relying on books to understand disease, he thought a good physician should observe and experiment. When miners were dying of lung disease in Germany, Paracelsus investigated the working conditions of the miners and determined that dust, not underground spirits, caused the miners’ death. But Paracelsus was only the beginning of a revolution in the ways that people thought about disease.

In the seventeenth century the first glimmer of a new field of science of understanding disease appears. Its unlikely source was a hat-maker in London. In 1662, a haberdasher and city council member named John Graunt wanted to know more about births, deaths and illnesses in the city of London. He assembled data and quantified it. For the first time there was data showing how disease affected men, women, and children. He asked if there were seasonal variations and where illness appeared. In short, he did the work of an epidemiologist, looking at large populations and searching for patterns.

In 1854 London was struck by, yet another, outbreak of cholera. This one was particularly deadly, over 500 people died in 10 days, some mere hours after falling ill. It was the work of one doctor, John Snow, to uncover the source of cholera and in the process create a new field of study: epidemiology. His tools are still used today. He mapped the disease in the district of Soho. He carefully interviewed inhabitants and organized what he found. In our class students will become Snow’s assistants and help him interview the survivors of cholera in the district of Soho. They will map those who died and who survived and look for patterns. In short, they will become disease detectives.

In the 20th century scientists have used the tools of epidemiology to help prevent a remarkable range of diseases. They proved that smoking led to lung cancer. They used epidemiological methods to eradicate smallpox. In recent years epidemic diseases like Ebola, SARS, AIDS, and today Covid-19, have highlighted the importance of data collection and statistical analysis to confronting new diseases. As a member of our scientific team you will learn the history of disease detectives. I hope you will join us on this important journey through the past.