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Dr. Lizabeth Johnson,   



“Of course, there had been plenty of diseases, long before humans had been around.  But humans had definitely created Pestilence.  They had a genius for crowding together, for poking around in jungles, for setting the midden so handily next to the well.  Pestilence was, therefore, part human, with all that this entailed.” Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time.

Human society has a complicated relationship with disease.  The earliest written accounts of contagion in human communities demonstrate that people tended to view disease as a result of divine wrath.  In such cases, a cure could only be found by determining why the gods had sent the disease and how to regain divine goodwill.  In addition, the earliest medical theories regarding disease tended to focus not only on possible environmental factors, but also on the sufferer’s ethnic or social origin as a factor in the disease.  This association of diseases with divine wrath and/or specific ethnic or social groups persisted from the Classical Greek and Roman period to the Late Middle Ages, with ordinary people and even physicians viewing the infamous Black Death as the Christian God’s means of punishing sinners in European society.  Even worse, during the first outbreak of the Black Death, some individuals believed the disease was being spread by Jewish residents in European communities, which led to a rise in anti-Semitism throughout much of Europe, a trend which culminated in the Holocaust during World War II.  It was only in the 19th century that physicians and scientists were able to begin making significant strides forward in identifying disease vectors and offering effective treatments, but even those advances in medical science did not always deter people in modern society from viewing diseases as the result of divine wrath or, more problematically, as the inevitable result of disease-prone ethnic or social groups mingling with the healthy majority.  For example, in early 20th century American society, many people believed that immigrants to the country were more prone to diseases such as Typhoid, Cholera, and Smallpox, a view which reappeared in public discussions in the United States in 2014 during the West African Ebola outbreak.  Similarly, in the late 20th century, when AIDS began to reach epidemic proportions in the United States, many people believed that it was a disease that only affected LGBTQ communities while others argued that it was evidence of the Christian God’s desire to punish those individuals for their immoral sexual behavior.  Although there were epidemics where these preconceived notions about certain individuals being disease-ridden were set aside, as during the Polio outbreak in the mid-20th century, in general, human society often seems to fall back on the idea that some people are, by their very nature, “diseased” and are, therefore, a threat to healthy individuals.  In this course, we’ll examine this complex relationship humans have had with disease from the ancient period forward, using medical, scientific, historical, literary, and visual sources that depict both the scientific and the social view of disease.


Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map:  the Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.  Riverhead Trade, reprint ed., 2007.  ISBN 978-1594482694.

James H. Jones, Bad Blood:  the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, new and expanded edition.  Free Press, revised ed., 1992.  ISBN 978-0029166765.

David M. Oshinsky, Polio:  An American Story, Oxford University Press, 2006.  ISBN 978-0195307146.

David Quammen, Ebola: the Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.  ISBN 978-0393351552.

Other readings will be made available on the course website.


Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel; We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Francisco; Stephen Fry, HIV & Me.






Active participation in class discussions.

Leadership of one discussion session, including providing background on the discussion topic and questions/topics for discussion.

Two 5-page analytical papers based on readings assigned for the class.

One 15-page research paper that will focus on disease from both a scientific and social perspective.

An oral presentation on the research paper, including a handout with a 250-word abstract and references for fellow students.



Dr. Lizabeth Johnson graduated from New Mexico Tech with a B.S. in Biology and went on to earn a Ph.D. in Medieval History from the University of Washington.  She teaches history of science courses and social science courses for the Honors College.  With regard to the history of science, she is particularly interested in ongoing research on various diseases, including the Bubonic Plague and Ebola, and how communities have responded to the presence of such diseases historically and in the modern era.