Instructor: Prof. Susanne M. Klausen


Pandemics are outbreaks of infectious, lethal disease that spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people. From the Black Plague in the 14th century, to the Influenze Pandemic of 1918-1919, to the current outbreak of Ebola, epidemics are never purely medical events. Instead they accentuate many features and beliefs already present in societies, and accelerate social processes underway within them; as one historian observed, epidemics “expose the nerve system of society.” In addition, the origins and spread of pandemics are often directly affected by various kinds of human activity, such as transregional travel, trade, war, and colonial conquest. This class examines how different societies at different times responded medically, socially and politically to pandemics, starting with the Black Plague. We will explore the roles of a wide range of human actors, from patients, medical practitioners, and priests to scientists, public health officials and the state in responses to disease outbreaks, paying attention to questions of power, agency, class, race, and gender.

Aims and Goals 

A major goal of the course to identify changes and continuities in societies’ attempts to understand and control frightening, deadly outbreaks of disease over the centuries. Also, it aims to identify the importance of culture, religion, class, race and gender in determining people’s response to pandemics. Another aim of the course is to improve students’ verbal and written communication skills.

Class Format

The course will meet twice a week for three hours, and time will be divided between lectures, class discussion, and group presentations based on analysis of assigned readings, historical documents, images and films.


Assessment will be based on a short essay, group presentation, class participation and an in-class exam.