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 (

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