When an epidemic of an infectious disease kills thousands of humans across vast regions it is referred to as a ‘pandemic’. It is far less common in the world in the 21st century, however throughout history in every location in the world our ancestors could find themselves in the midst of a pandemic. By understanding some of these regional and global epidemics can provide some insight to what may have been untimely deaths of our earlier relatives.
Just going back seven hundred years to the 1300s, European plagues killed 20 to 30 million people. It was so bad that by 1370 the population of Europe was cut in half.
The Great Plague of London was from 1665 to 1666, killing about 20% of the city, 100,000 people. By the 1700s, it appeared epidemics were more isolated except for smallpox which was still a big killer. With many countries population mainly rural and only 15% of population living in towns, the spread of diseases was less.
Some major pandemics just seem to over take areas. There were major outbreaks of Yellow Fever in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and surrounding areas in 1793. About 5,000 citizens died just in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during 1793, causing it to be a ghost town with people leaving the city. If in your family history research, you saw family members leave a certain area and relocate; an epidemic may have been the reason.
During the 1800s there were three major waves of contagious diseases. From 1831 to 1833 there were two influenza epidemics and one of cholera. Then from 1836 to 1842, there were epidemics of typhoid, cholera, influenza and typhus in different parts of the United States. Seeing that those years witnessed many pioneers moving to the mid-west and Great Plains, you can see how the diseases were spread.
By the 1860s and 1870s, with more people living in towns, there was less decent housing, more overcrowding, contaminated water supplies and hunger which allowed diseases like typhus, typhoid fever, measles, diphtheria, rickets, tuberculosis and scarlet fever to thrive. With poor living conditions and bad sanitation the epidemics increased. Cholera in 1866 across North America killed some 50,000 people. The cholera disease was a frightening spectacle which appeared again from 1883 to 1887 with 250,000 dying in Europe and some 50,000 in North America. Measles, which is very contagious, has killed some 200 million people around the globe since about 1860. Tuberculosis (TB) in the 19th century killed ¼ of the adults just in Europe. Such events certainly made whole families want to immigrate to a new place, like the United States.
Continue with Part 2 and pandemics in the 20th century on FamilyTree.com Genealogy Blog for December 14, 2011.