Professor Susan Jones from the University of Minnesota
All are welcome to attend the Kings College London Annual Lecture in the History of Health and Medicine, to be held at 5pm on Weds 3 June in the Anatomy Lecture Theatre, K6.29, Strand Building, Strand, followed by a reception in the anatomy museum.
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.