Instructor: Professor Susanne Klausen


Epidemics are outbreaks of infectious, lethal disease. They are never purely medical events, instead they accentuate many features and beliefs already present in societies, and accelerate social processes already underway within them. In the words of one historian, pandemics “expose the nerve system…of society.” This seminar examines how different societies, at different times, responded medically, socially and politically to disease outbreaks that took place on a local, national, transregional, and sometimes world historical scale. We will trace how the advent of travel, trade and warfare led to outbreaks of deadly diseases such as smallpox and plague. We will then examine changes and continuities in societies’ attempts to understand and control frightening, deadly outbreaks of disease over millennia. The course explores the role played by a wide range of human actors, from patients, medical practitioners, and priests to scientists, public health officials and the state in responding to specific disease outbreaks. Using a case study approach, we will examine pandemics that occurred from Antiquity to the 21th century, including smallpox, bubonic plague, malaria, influenza, HIV-AIDS, and Ebola. Questions relating to power, agency, class, race, and gender will be discussed.

Class Format

This is a seminar and workshop-structured course.  Seminar meetings will concentrate on instructor- and student-directed discussions based on assigned readings, including articles and books.  Students will have the opportunity to pursue their own interest in the history of disease and epidemics for their major course paper.

Aims and Goals

This course will enhance students’:

  • Understanding of the interaction between the conceptualization of and response to disease outbreaks in society;
  • Understanding of key issues, historiography and methodologies in the history of pandemics;
  • Life-long learning skills including: effective question formulation; research skills; critical thinking; communication (written & oral); peer and self-assessment.


Evaluation will be based on attendance, quality of participation, group seminar presentation, essay proposal and major essay.