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Plague: Past, Present and Future


Lester Little, History

Electron photomicrograph of Yersinia pestis

Most people associate plague with the Black Death, a pandemic that carried off perhaps half of the European population between 1347 and 1353. What they may not know is that the European outbreak actually began in Central Asia in the 1330s and that it affected Asia and the Middle East as much as Europe. Few realize that there was an earlier pandemic of plague—more than eight centuries before the Black Death—the so-called Plague of Justinian. Nor are many aware that a third pandemic brewed for half a century in southern China in the 1800s, reaching Hong Kong in 1894 and spreading outward from there by steamship to every continent except Antarctica. Plague is not just a thing of the past. It is still very much present in the world today.

The best-known plague is bubonic plague, a disease caused by a bacterium scientists named Yersina pestis. The disease caused by Y. pestis still occurs regularly throughout the world, with annual cases in Asia, Africa, South America and even the United States. Because plague has been curable with antibiotics since the mid-twentieth century, we hear less about its devastating impact and have largely lost sight of its destructive potential. But plague still poses lethal risks, especially in countries with weaker economies and limited medical care. There is still no fully satisfactory vaccine for plague. Development of an antibiotic-resistant strain of the bacteria would pose an enormous risk of another deadly pandemic. And there remains the unsettling—but very real—possibility that Y. pestis could be turned into a bioterrorist weapon.

Because of its global impact, its macabre history, and its frightening potential, plague, perhaps more than any other disease, has inspired interdisciplinary scholarship. Interest within scientific disciplines and public health fields is obvious, but plague has also figured in the work of scholars outside of the laboratory sciences. It has been studied not only by historians, but also by art historians (think of all those paintings of the principal plague saint, Sebastian), by literary scholars (think Defoe, Manzoni, Camus), by biblical scholars seeking to interpret passages from the Hebrew Bible, and by Islamicists considering martyrdom for those dying of plague. Plague emerges in the writing of philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists. Given the encompassing nature of the disease, there are few areas of scholarship it does not touch.

This short-term Kahn project will examine the topic of plague from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. The project seeks faculty from departments across all three divisions who have either a general or specific interest in the ways in which plague—past, present, and future—impacts individuals, culture and society. Fellows will be joined in the project by Kenneth Gage, the chief of Flea-Borne Disease Activity at the Centers for Disease Control, who is responsible for that agency’s efforts to monitor, prevent, and control plague in the U.S., and also by Kevin Reinhart, Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College who specializes in Islamic religious studies. Through a combination of presentations from outside experts across different fields, open-ended discussion and shared readings, we hope to see this most complex and persistent of diseases in a new way.

Interested faculty should email Rosetta Cohen (, Director of the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, on or before October 12, 2012. In your email, please include the title of the project and explain why you are interested in it, what you would bring to it, and what you would hope to gain from it.

Project Schedule:

Friday, November 9, 2012:

  • 4:00-8:00 pm        Includes dinner

Saturday, November 10, 2012:

  • 9:00 am-4:00 pm Includes lunch


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