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How Diseases Spread: Ways People Have Tried to Explain Pandemics Through History

April 8, 2020 in History

By Roy Wenzl

Some scapegoated the gods, or their enemies. Others blamed planetary alignments. For many, though, it was just ‘bad air.’

Throughout millennia, people have fostered some pretty irrational ideas about how infectious diseases such as plague and cholera were spread. Some of those notions—like the idea that the ancient Cyprian plague could be caught simply by staring into the face of someone afflicted—seem laughable, like something the Monty Python troupe might have sprinkled into one of their medieval parody scripts for television.

Yet even as waves of disease washed again and again over population centers, it took centuries for science to fully understand the invisible world of microbes. Until that happened, people under pandemic siege tried to explain the overwhelming amount of death they saw in different ways. Some used simple observations, while some turned to fervent beliefs. Others viewed the cataclysm through the lens of their long-held biases, while still others processed the carnage through superstitions and bizarre theories. Here are a few:

READ MORE: How 5 of History’s Worst Pandemics Finally Ended

Angry gods

Allegory (Apocalypse). Found in the Collection of Art History Museum, Vienne.

When masses of people started inexplicably dying, many early cultures looked first to a vengeful or unforgiving God—or gods. In ancient Greek mythology, which often served as allegory for actual events, Homer wrote in The Iliad of the god Apollo raining plague down on the Greek army with his arrows during the Trojan War, killing animals first, then soldiers. Apollo’s arrows came to symbolize disease and death.

But then, Launching a piercing shaft at the men themselves, He cut them down in droves—and the corpse-fires burned on, Night and day, no end in sight. Nine days the arrows of god swept through the army. —Homer’s The Iliad, Robert Fagles translation

For its part, the Bible carries numerous references to plague as the wrath of divinity:

“For I will at this time send all my plagues upon thine heart, and upon they servants, and upon they people; that thou mayest know that there is none like me in all the earth.” (Exodus 9:14)

“…The wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague.” (Numbers 11:33)

“Woe unto us! Who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty Gods? These are the gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness.” (1 Samuel …read more


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Why Eisenhower Sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock After Brown v. Board

April 8, 2020 in History

By Alexis Clark

When the governor of Arkansas failed to integrate Central High School, President Eisenhower called in federal troops to protect the Little Rock Nine.

When the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that separate schools for whites and blacks were unconstitutional and inherently unequal, the slow and often violent dismantling of segregation in educational institutions began across the country.

Knowing that there would be defiance and resistance toward the …read more