The Histories of Epidemics in the United States

December 17, 2020

An illustration of the coronavirus, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov)

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed daily life in the United States. With the rise and fall of infection rates, local governments have lurched from phase yellow to phase red and back again. Restaurants, shops, and businesses have shuttered their operations, theaters and museums have closed, schools and universities have shifted to online education, and professional athletes have competed in “bubbles,” cheered on by cardboard-cutout crowds.

To slow the spread of the virus, prominent medical experts such as Andrew Fauci and Deborah Birx have recommended a range of public health protocols. Most Americans have worn masks, washed hands, and stood six feet apart. They have even begun to speak with a new pandemic vocabulary, daily uttering phrases—social distancing, mitigation testing, long haulers—that would have elicited bewilderment not a few short months ago. From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has permitted each individual state to develop its own strategic response. The results have been spotty. Some governors have refused to impose mask mandates. Others, in the face of significant political and economic pressure, have lifted restrictions on commerce and travel. In consequence, COVID-19 continues to spread and the death count continues to rise. As of December 17, 2020, more than 308,270 Americans with COVID-19 have died.[1]

As a resource for teachers working to historicize the present moment, and for the benefit of all readers interested in the histories of epidemics, quarantines, and related public health interventions, the Process staff has created the following index of book reviews published in the Journal of American History over the past fifty years. In keeping with the nature of the coronavirus, we have limited the index to histories of communicable diseases, excluding important works on cancer, for example, substance abuse, and other medical conditions. To maintain a narrow focus, we have also omitted many excellent titles in closely related subfields, including the histories of science, technology, and medicine; public health and health advocacy; cleanliness and sanitation; disability; death; and medical biography.

[1] Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.


Year Title Author DOI
1975 The Destroying Angel: The Conquest of Smallpox in Colonial Boston Ola Elizabeth Winslow https://doi.org/10.2307/1901317
1976 Epidemic and Peace, 1918 Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. https://doi.org/10.2307/1888231
1986 No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States since 1880 Allan M. Brandt https://doi.org/10.2307/1903678
1988 The Tuberculosis Movement: A Public Health Campaign in the Progressive Era Michael E. Teller https://doi.org/10.2307/1908439
1989 Disease and Distinctiveness in the American South Suzanne Linder https://doi.org/10.2307/2936444
1990 Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: History of a Twentieth-Century Disease Victoria A. Harden https://doi.org/10.2307/2079629
1991 From TB to AIDS: Epidemics among Urban Blacks since 1900 David McBride https://doi.org/10.2307/2078571
1992 Bargaining for Life: A Social History of Tuberculosis, 1876–1938 Barbara Bates https://doi.org/10.2307/2080496
1992 Dirt and Disease: Polio before FDR Naomi Rogers https://doi.org/10.2307/2080512
1992 Sentinel for Health: A History of the Centers for Disease Control Elizabeth W. Etheridge https://doi.org/10.2307/2081136
1993 The Mississippi Valley’s Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 Khaled J. Bloom https://doi.org/10.2307/2081753
1994 Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the “Immigrant Menace” Alan M. Kraut https://doi.org/10.2307/2082332
1995 Disease and Class: Tuberculosis and the Shaping of Modern North American Society Georgina D. Feldberg https://doi.org/10.2307/2945740
1996 Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health Judith Walzer Leavitt https://doi.org/10.2307/2952837
1996 Fevered Lives: Tuberculosis in American Culture since 1870 Katherine Ott https://doi.org/10.2307/2952655
1997 Death Stalks the Yakama: Epidemiological Transitions and Mortality on the Yakama Indian Reservation, 1888–1964 Clifford E. Trafier https://doi.org/10.2307/2567293
1995 Networks of Innovation: Vaccine Development at Merck, Sharp, & Dohme, and Mulford, 1895–1995 Louis Galambos with Jane Eliot Sewell https://doi.org/10.2307/2567303
1997 A Melancholy Scene of Devastation: The Public Response to the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic J. Worth Estes and Billy G. Smith, eds. https://doi.org/10.2307/2568308
1998 Contagion and Confinement: Controlling Tuberculosis along the Skid Road Barron H. Lerner https://doi.org/10.2307/2568043
1999 Rheumatic Fever in America and Britain: A Biological, Epidemiological, and Medical History Peter C. English https://doi.org/10.2307/2675357
1999 Blood Saga: Hemophilia, AIDS, and the Survival of a Community Susan Resnik https://doi.org/10.2307/2674903
1999 Childhood’s Deadly Scourge: The Campaign to Control Diphtheria in New York City, 1880–1930 Evelynn Maxine Hammonds https://doi.org/10.2307/2674838
1998 The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life Nancy Tomes https://doi.org/10.2307/2674834
1999 The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774–1874 Robert Boyd https://doi.org/10.2307/2674950
1997 Quarantine! East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemics of 1892 Howard Markel https://doi.org/10.2307/2700471
2001 Dying in the City of the Blues: Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race and Health Keith Wailoo https://doi.org/10.2307/2700738
2000 City of Plagues: Disease, Poverty, and Deviance in San Francisco Susan Craddock https://doi.org/10.2307/2700871
2001 Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown Shah Nayan https://doi.org/10.2307/3092438
2001 Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82 Elizabeth A. Fenn https://doi.org/10.2307/3092365
2001 Malaria: Poverty, Race, and Public Health in the United States Margaret Humphreys https://doi.org/10.2307/3659830
2002 The Deadly Truth: A History of Disease in America Gerald N. Grob https://doi.org/10.2307/3660363
2002 Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations Sharla M. Fett https://doi.org/10.2307/3659659
2004 Water, Race, and Disease Werner Troesken https://doi.org/10.2307/3659360
2005 Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown James C. Mohr https://doi.org/10.2307/3660057
2005 Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors Daniel J. Wilson https://doi.org/10.2307/4486011
2005 Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I Carol R. Byerly https://doi.org/10.2307/4486169
2006 Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 Natalia Molina https://doi.org/10.2307/25094705
2006 Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines Warwick Anderson https://doi.org/10.2307/25094874
2006 State of Immunity: The Politics of Vaccination in Twentieth-Century America James Colgrove https://doi.org/10.2307/25094802
2006 Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge Linda Nash https://doi.org/10.2307/25094965
2007 Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492–1715 Paul Kelton https://doi.org/10.2307/25095634
2007 Colonizing Leprosy: Imperialism and the Politics of Public Health in the United States Michelle T. Moran https://doi.org/10.2307/27694457
2008 Saving Sickly Children: The Tuberculosis Preventorium in American Life, 1909–1970 Cynthia A. Connolly https://doi.org/10.2307/27694644
2008 Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative Priscilla Wald https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/96.2.589
2008 Sex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America John Parascandola https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/96.3.876
2009 The Mosquito Crusades: A History of the American Anti-Mosquito Movement from the Reed Commission to the First Earth Day Gordon Patterson https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/96.4.1231
2009 Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation Samuel Kelton Roberts Jr https://doi.org/10.2307/jahist/97.1.204
2009 Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America Bert Hansen https://doi.org/10.2307/jahist/97.1.215
2009 Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis Jennifer Brier https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/97.2.579
2010 Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War Andrew McIlwaine Bell https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/97.3.808
2011 Pox: An American History Michael Willrich https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jar502
2011 Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry Peter McCandless https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jar617
2011 A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America Ernest Drucker https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jas315
2012 American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic Nancy K. Bristow https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jas415
2011 Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative Cristobal Silva https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jas351
2012 Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown Guenter B. Risse https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jas590
2012 American Sunshine: Diseases of Darkness and the Quest for Natural Light Daniel Freund https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jat035
2012 Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the Texas-Mexico Border, 1848–1942 John Mckiernan-González https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jat137
2012 The Contagious City: The Politics of Public Health in Early Philadelphia Simon Finger https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jat343
2013 Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World Billy G. Smith https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jau369
2014 Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics Harvard University Library Open Collections Program https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jav106
2015 Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight against Smallpox, 1518–182 Paul Kelton https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jaw033
2016 Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants Phil Tiemeyer https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jaw105
2016 Disease, War, and the Imperial State: The Welfare of the British Armed Forces during the Seven Years’ War Erica Charters https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jaw202
2016 Driven by Fear: Epidemics and Isolation in San Francisco’s House of Pestilence Guenter B. Risse https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jaw412
2016 The End of a Global Pox: America and the Eradication of Smallpox in the Cold War Era Bob H. Reinhardt https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jaw298
2017 The Antivaccine Heresy: Jacobson v. Massachusetts and the Troubled History of Compulsory Vaccination in the United States Karen L. Walloch https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jax061
2017 Influenza Encyclopedia: The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918–1919; A Digital Encyclopedia University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jax164
2017 Feverish Bodies, Enlightened Minds: Science and the Yellow Fever Controversy in the Early American Republic Thomas A. Apel https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jax199
2019 Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic Richard A. McKay https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jaz159
2019 Yellow Fever, Race, and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans Urmi Engineer Willoughby https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jaz045