Tag Archives: epidemics

  • UTP’s Physical Distancing Reading List

    In these challenging times, it can often seem difficult to grasp the truth of what is going on around us. In an overwhelming flow of media and information, sometimes what’s missing is some context and perspective. As a university press, we are proud to publish the work of leading scholars who tackle important issues – like the ones we are facing today – with intelligence and expertise.

    For those who are looking for a little context – or just something to focus your mind while you’re maintaining physical distance from others – we offer a few suggestions of books that we’ve published over the years that might provide exactly the perspective you need.

    Be well, stay connected, and keep reading.

    Books that will provide some historical perspective:

    Epidemics and the Modern World

    By Mitchell L. Hammond

    Published in January 2020 (we never could have imagined how timely this publication would become), this new textbook uses "biographies" of epidemics such as plague, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS to explore the impact of disease on the development of modern societies from the fourteenth century to the present. We highly recommend Chapter 8 on the 1918 influenza pandemic for some necessary perspective – you can read the entire chapter for free here. You should also check out this Literary Review of Canada article which manages to artfully draw from Hammond’s textbook alongside works by Defoe and Camus.


    Influenza 1918: Disease, Death, and Struggle in Winnipeg

    By Esyllt W. Jones

    The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed as many as fifty million people worldwide and affected the vast majority of Canadians. Yet the pandemic, which came and left in one season, has remained difficult to interpret. What did it mean to live through and beyond this brief, terrible episode, and what were its long-term effects? Influenza 1918 uses Winnipeg as a case study to show how disease articulated and helped to re-define boundaries of social difference. Jones concludes that social conflict is not an inevitable outcome of epidemics, but rather of inequality and public failure to fully engage all members of the community in the fight against disease. This is a valuable lesson for today.


    Hunting the 1918 Flu

    By Kirsty Duncan

    To this day medical science has been at a loss to explain the origin of the Spanish flu. Responding to sustained interest in this medical mystery, Hunting the 1918 Flu presents a detailed account of Kirsty Duncan's experiences as she organized an international, multi-discipline scientific expedition to exhume the bodies of a group of Norwegian miners buried in Svalbard – all victims of the flu virus. Duncan's narrative reveals the turbulent politics of a group moving towards a goal where the egos were as strong as the stakes were high. The author, herself a medical geographer (and known to most Canadians as the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Member of Parliament), is very frank about her bruising emotional, financial, and professional experiences on the “dark side of science.”


    The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada

    By Mark Osborne Humphries

    In The Last Plague, Mark Osborne Humphries examines how federal epidemic disease management strategies developed before the First World War, arguing that the deadliest epidemic in Canadian history ultimately challenged traditional ideas about disease and public health governance. Using federal, provincial, and municipal archival sources, newspapers, and newly discovered military records – as well as original epidemiological studies – Humphries situates the flu within a larger social, political, and military context. His provocative conclusion is that the 1918 flu crisis had important long-term consequences at the national level, ushering in the “modern” era of public health in Canada.


    From Wall Street to Bay Street: The Origins and Evolution of American and Canadian Finance

    By Christopher Kobrak and Joe Martin

    The 2008 financial crisis rippled across the globe and triggered a worldwide recession. Unlike the American banking system which experienced massive losses, takeovers, and taxpayer funded bailouts, Canada’s banking system withstood the crisis relatively well and maintained its liquidity and profitability. The divergence in the two banking systems can be traced to their distinct institutional and political histories. From Wall Street to Bay Street tackles the similarities and differences between the financial systems of Canada and the United States – offering useful insight into our current financial predicament.


    In addition, a couple of books that will provide some medical context include Treating Health Care: How the Canadian System Works and How It Could Work Better by Raisa B. Deber and Public Health in the Age of Anxiety: Religious and Cultural Roots of Vaccine Hesitancy in Canada, edited by Paul Bramadat, Maryse Guay, Julie A. Bettinger, and Réal Roy. As people start to think about food security in new ways, we recommend Growing a Sustainable City?: The Question of Urban Agriculture by Christina D. Rosan and Hamil Pearsall. For those who are thinking more about crisis communication, we suggest Duncan Koerber’s recent guide, Crisis Communication in Canada. And finally, for some political and economic context, consider Backrooms and Beyond: Partisan Advisers and the Politics of Policy Work in Canada by Jonathan Craft; Back from the Brink: Lessons from the Canadian Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Crisis by Paul Halpern, Caroline Cakebread, Christopher C. Nicholls, and Poonam Puri; and Bureaucratic Manoeuvres: The Contested Administration of the Unemployed by John Grundy.

  • Epidemics and the Modern World

    Epidemics and the Modern World surveys the role of significant infectious diseases in history from the Black Death of the fourteenth century to the Zika virus in the early twenty-first century. In light of the recent coronavirus outbreak, author Mitchell Hammond discusses how epidemics are a distinctively modern problem as well as a topic of historical interest.


    In 1972, two leading virologists, one of whom had won a Nobel Prize, suggested that “the most likely forecast about the future of infectious disease is that it will be very dull.” In Western countries, at least, infectious disease seemed to be on the run after the introduction of antibiotics, the expansion of childhood immunizations, and the success of campaigns against smallpox and polio. Many experts glimpsed a bright future.

    Now this optimism seems very distant. Even before the SARS virus appeared in 2003, many scientists agreed that the world was entering a new era of so-called “emerging infectious diseases.” The outbreak caused by the coronavirus—a pathogen that resembles SARS in many respects—reminds us that infectious diseases pose a distinctive set of challenges for the modern world.

    Humans have always had diseases, but we have not always had epidemics or pandemics as we understand them today. Before the later nineteenth century, some diseases certainly spread widely but it was difficult to discern their movement over large distances. A turning point was reached in 1889, when the so-called “Russian flu” began several sweeps around the world. Steamships and railroads transported pathogens swiftly across oceans and continents. The flu could be followed more or less in real time because lines of telegraph cable were knitting the world together. This was a modern pandemic—an episode in which microbes and ideas simultaneously spread independently around much of the world.

    Our many experiences with the coronavirus today similarly remind us that epidemic diseases are not a holdover from a primitive past when humans were defenseless against natural forces. On the contrary, today’s new infections arise from a world in which organisms and landscapes have been shaped to suit human purposes. Massive use of antibiotics, farming on an industrial scale, and deforestation are some activities that increase exposure to pre-existing pathogens and the evolution of novel pathogens. Once an infection has human consequences, diseases spread faster than ever because the pace and scale of travel have never been greater. The forces that spread disease are not limited to one location or group of people. Pandemics reveal us, all of us, to ourselves. As Ron Barrett and Georg Armelagos recently put it: “microbes are the ultimate critics of modernity.”

    Image 2.1 from Epidemics and the Modern World: Mary and the Christ child with pox sufferers.

    Another lesson relates to the objectives that I had for this book and my courses at the University of Victoria. Just as we explore today’s emerging diseases with the best tools available, our knowledge of past epidemics is enriched when we incorporate insights from the natural sciences. Epidemics and the Modern World attends to science with focus boxes that develop key concepts at greater length. For example, genomic data gathered from corpses has transformed our understanding of the impact of bubonic plague in Eurasia and Africa after 1348. Studies of arthropods, including hundreds of mosquito species, inform our view of how diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, or Zika virus disease might affect our future.

    Such investigations do not answer all our questions, and we cannot accept scientific claims uncritically, especially with respect to the distant past. However, a fuller understanding of both human and non-human biological forces can steer us away from superficial explanations of events. In particular, it can steer us away from stereotypes about how certain societies or peoples bear more responsibility for epidemics than others. The forces that drive the emergence of new diseases today are global forces that belong to everyone.

    I finished writing Epidemics and the Modern World before anyone had heard of the new coronavirus. I write this post without knowing what will ensue in the short and long term. But it is clear that epidemics not only influence our modern world, they manifest its essential character.


    Dr. Mitchell L Hammond is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Victoria.

    To read the the Introduction of Epidemics and the Modern World, click here.

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