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Engraving of a plague doctor

Pandemics that horrified humanity

The coronia virus is latest in a series of pandemics and outbreaks that have caused widespread fear

‘The whole human race came near to being annihilated’ | Image: Shutterstock

The new decade has come with a new health scare: a novel form of coronavirus, which has killed hundreds since its initial outbreak in Wuhan, China. But the emergence of the Wuhan coronavirus is just the latest in a series of pandemics and outbreaks that have caused widespread fear and panic across the ages, from the time of the Byzantine Empire to the modern era…

The Plague of Justinian

Long before the more notorious Black Death, there was the Plague of Justinian – the first confirmed pandemic in recorded history. Named after the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, who himself almost died from the disease, this onslaught of Yersinia pestis (the bacterium which causes bubonic plague) began in 541 AD and killed untold millions of people.

Possibly brought to Constantinople by rats on board grain ships sailing in from North Africa, the plague turned the great city into a morbid metropolis of the dead, with bodies stacked up unburied and the economy of the empire dealt a shuddering blow. Curiously, the Plague of Justinian also presents us with early evidence of how news reports can be irresponsibly exaggerated during pandemics, with the historian Procopius writing that ‘the whole human race came near to being annihilated’ (not quite) and that Justinian himself was a demon in human form who ‘slew a trillian people’ (probably not).

The Black Death

It was in 1347 that Europe succumbed to perhaps the most infamous pandemic of all time: the Black Death. Scientists and historians still debate the exact origins of this outbreak of the plague, with China being a favoured candidate by many experts. Intriguingly, some have suggested that an early form of biological warfare helped spread the plague to Europe, after Mongol soldiers besieging the port city of Kaffa in Crimea fell ill during the stand-off. It’s said that they began catapulting the plague-ridden bodies of their dead over the walls of Kaffa, to spread the contagion within. As a contemporary chronicler put it, when people in Kaffa later sailed off to Venice and other cities, ‘it was as if they had brought evil spirits with them’.

Whether or not the inhabitants of Kaffa went on to play a key role in disseminating the plague throughout Europe, the Black Death eventually had an apocalyptic impact, with historian Ole Benedictow suggesting that around 60% of Europe’s population was wiped out. A particularly gory account by a chronicler in Florence sums up how communities coped with the disaster, burying bodies on top of bodies in mass graves, with corpses and soil layered ‘just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.’

The Great Plague of London

Almost a quarter of London’s population would die in the Great Plague which struck in 1665. This was an epidemic rather than a pandemic, as it did not spread across continents, but for Londoners living in the muck and squalor of the city at that time, it was the stuff of nightmares.

The poorest people fell ill and died amid streets awash with animal dung and other assorted filth, the homes of the diseased were daubed with ominous red crosses, while the wealthy – including Charles II – fled to the safety of the countryside. Diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the grim atmosphere of London, with ‘nobody but poor wretches in the streets’ and how there was ‘little noise heard day or night but tolling of bells’. Thankfully, this plague was relatively short-lived, with the Great Fire of London of 1666 often thought to have helped stamp out the epidemic.

Third Cholera Pandemic

Caused by a bacterial infection, cholera is a devastating illness that causes severe and deadly dehydration, and has killed millions of people over successive outbreaks over the past centuries. The third pandemic, which originated in India in the middle of the 19th Century before spreading across the world, is notable as a turning point in our understanding of how diseases are contracted. At the time, the ‘miasma theory’ held that cholera was the result of bad, foetid air given off by rotting matter. The great Victorian social reformer Edwin Chadwick even believed that ‘all smell is disease’.

But one man, physician John Snow, begged to differ. Undertaking a systematic analysis of people stricken by cholera in London’s Soho district, he realised they had one thing in common: a communal water pump. The removal of the pump’s handle helped usher in the end of the local outbreak, and is now celebrated as a defining moment in the evolution of the germ theory of disease.

Spanish Flu

Despite its catastrophic impact, the Spanish Flu pandemic fell into obscurity throughout the 20th Century – perhaps because it emerged in 1918, while the world was still engulfed by the Great War. However, more recent outbreaks like the swine flu pandemic of 2009 have helped to bring Spanish Flu back into the public consciousness as a kind of ‘worst case scenario’ warning from the past.

With a body count thought to be as high as 100 million people, the Spanish Flu did not actually start in Spain. The name simply arose because wartime censorship stifled coverage of the pandemic in Allied nations, while neutral Spain was free to print stories of the terrifying outbreak. There is still much debate about where the deadly H1N1 flu virus took hold, with suspicion falling on army bases in the US and France. In any case, massive troop movements helped spread the disease, with hideous consequences for patients who would often drown in their own haemorrhaging blood.


It was in 1981 that US doctors were baffled by the numbers of young gay men falling ill with pneumonia and a rare type of skin cancer. Before long, it was clear this was not a syndrome exclusive to gay people, and HIV was identified as the virus responsible for destroying the immune systems of those infected.

Thought to have originated in African primates, the virus crossed over to humans at some undetermined point in the 20th Century. Indeed, DNA analysis of preserved tissue samples has proven that people had fallen victim to HIV/AIDS long before the pandemic began in the 80s – one example being a 15-year-old Missouri boy called Robert Rayford, who died in 1968.

During the height of the pandemic in the 80s and 90s, gay communities in the major Western cities were struck down in terrifying numbers, Africa was devastated by AIDS-related deaths, and the fear, confusion and social stigma surrounding HIV only made things worse for those living with the virus. It’s estimated that more than 32 million people have died since the pandemic began, but advances in drug therapy now mean that HIV can fortunately now be regarded as a completely manageable condition rather than a death sentence.