A Historical Guide to Pandemic Responses

Published in Fundamentals - Fundamentals April 2020

As COVID-19 illness spreads across the world, civic leaders, medical practitioners and individual citizens continue to grapple with decisions about how to slow the viral outbreak so that it doesn’t overwhelm our health care and economic systems. Although the scope of the pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetimes, the world has faced similar pandemics in the past. Medical historians at Johns Hopkins Medicine are taking a close look at how previous epidemics — and our responses to them — can help us better respond to the present crisis.

They have written the first in a series of short essays (below) that act as “signposts” to highlight historical research on prior responses to rapidly spreading disease among populations. Exploring the world’s previous experience with epidemics and pandemics, these posts aim to help a general audience learn how past responses offer enduring lessons for the future. More essays will follow in the coming weeks.

Founded in 1929, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Department of the History of Medicine is the oldest such department in the English-speaking world. The department’s faculty members are dedicated to scholarship on the histories of medicine, disease, the health sciences and their effect on society. These scholars are also charged with making historical research relevant to present-day medical practice, public health and health policy.

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