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Plague's Third Pandemic: A History of Disease Ecology

Anatomy Lecture Theatre (K6.29), London
03/06/2015 (17:00-18:30)
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Speaker: Professor Susan Jones, University of Minnesota

Followed by a Drinks Reception 18.30–20.00, Anatomy Museum

Generously sponsored by the Wellcome Trust. All are welcome to attend. There is no need to reserve a place.  

Annual lecture in the history of health and medicine


Between the 1860s and 1950, the “third pandemic” of bubonic plague spread globally via infected rats, ships, and people through urban “plague ports.” Public health officials in ports of entry in former settler societies—South Africa and the United States among them—blamed Asian immigration and severely disciplined the “foreign” people, rats and fleas thought to have imported the disease. To their shock, the disease appeared again within a few years, this time among native white farmers living inland, and “sylvatic” (wild) animals. As South African plague investigator J. Alexander Mitchell put it, the discovery of a link between sylvatic plague and human epidemics was a “rude awakening” that “opened a new chapter in the history of plague” and changed the identity of the disease. 

This lecture combines historical analysis and recent phylogenetic evidence to trace plague’s changing identity from a disease of people and rats, to a larger biological phenomenon affecting a wide array of species and places. In the process, plague’s social, cultural and scientific identities underwent significant transformation. No longer could public health officials hope that “the disease had been completely eradicated from the country,” nor was it ever likely to be eradicated—a conclusion that has reverberated through the decades to inform our current concerns over emergent and re-emergent diseases.

Speaker biography

Susan D. Jones holds a B.S. from Harvard University, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Illinois, and a Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania. She is Professor and Director of the Program for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota; Professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior; and also a veterinarian. 
Her research areas include the history of zoonotic diseases and human-animal interactions; history of ecology and disease; and history of veterinary medicine. She is the author of several articles; and the books Valuing Animals: Veterinarians and Their Patients in Modern America; and Death in a Small Package: A Short History of Anthrax. She is currently working on a project about the spread and endemicity of bubonic plague over the past century.

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