Wednesday, October 14, 2020

What Past Pandemics can Teach Us ~ a conversation with Gail Jarrow

by Sue Heavenrich

In March, the schools and businesses in my county closed down for, what we thought at the time would be, a short period of time. But seven months later here we are, still in the midst of a pandemic. Humans have faced plagues and pandemics for at least as long as recorded history. Surely, in the last thousand years, we must have learned something? 

To find out, I called Gail Jarrow. She’s written about bubonic plague and typhoid fever, examining the science as well as the social and cultural events surrounding outbreaks of those diseases.

“With any new disease there are so many unknowns,” says Gail. When bubonic plague came to the US in the late 1890s-1900, scientists and doctors had some knowledge of bacteria. But they still had no understanding about how the plague was spread. The disease showed up in San Francisco, brought by ship from China, and scientists scrambled to find the cause and a cure. While public health officials fought the disease, politicians tried to hide it. They didn’t want people to know that it was in their community. Meanwhile, a French scientist working in India had written up a report on fleas as the agent of transmission – but it took 10 years for the scientific community to accept his findings. 

“In the heat of the moment, people, even scientists, can decide to accept one thing about a disease only years later to discover it was something else,” Gail says. In the case of bubonic plague, scientists were rushing to find a bacteria so they could develop a vaccine. “And mistakes were made,” Gail says. While scientists raced to find a cure, health officials leaned towards quarantines, an unpopular solution that conflicted with individual civil rights.

“We see many of these same tensions being played out with Covid,” says Gail. Pharmaceutical companies, local businesses, politicians, public health officials, and community residents each bring their own concerns and interests to a pandemic. 

“Just as with bubonic plague, we are learning things every day [about Covid-19],” says Gail. “We are going to make mistakes. In 1900 they made the best decisions they could with the information they had.” This is where we are at this point with the Covid pandemic: scientists continue to learn about the disease and public health officials are trying to make the best decisions they can. 

There are a lot of similarities between our current pandemic and the 1900 bubonic plague.
  • Both originated in China, spread from animals to humans and carried around the world. In 1900 is was ships, in 2020 it’s planes.
  • In 1900 San Francisco initiated a travel ban, and California monitored train stations and ports to make sure people wouldn’t carry the disease in or out of the communities. 
  • Public health officials tested people for the disease at the ports. In 2020 there were some travel bans and airports instituted temperature checks. But the US didn’t have the capacity to test vast populations and, at least in February and early March our airports were still open.
Covid testing is an issue, Gail notes. Not only are there limitations with using temperature as an indication, but we have yet to find a sure way to identify asymptomatic people carrying the virus.

Quarantine is an age-old approach to isolating disease. In Gail’s book about Typhoid Mary, medical detective George Soper eventually traced the outbreak of typhoid to Mary Mallon. But Mary refused to comply with quarantine and other medical directives because she never had any symptoms. With Mary, it became a battle of personal freedom versus public health – and here we are, once again deliberating quarantines, lockdowns, and contact tracing.

Check out Gail’s video on Covid-19, Pandemics & Disease

Most Notorious! A True Crime History Podcast features Gail in a podcast about deadly diseases in early 20th century America.

Gail’s newest book, Blood and Germs: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease, is out this month and kicks off her new trilogy on Medical Fiascoes. She explores the science and history of Civil War medicine through actual medical cases and first-person accounts by soldiers, doctors, and nurses. You can find out more about Gail and her books at her website.


  1. Hmm, one way to combat COVID is with information and history!Thanks Sue and Gail.

    1. yes indeed! There were anti-mask rallies and parades during the flu pandemic in 1918 - after which the number of cases increased. Like in MN right now...

  2. Fascinating conversation, Gail and Sue. These same challenges existed long ago and it is interesting to learn about how things were addressed and the obstacles they faced. Thank you!

  3. Evidence-based science/medicine is the way to go...and sometimes added caution is even better.

  4. Sue, this is so informative and appreciated during a trying time. Thank you for sharing.

  5. So timely, Sue and Gail. I remember Carolyn Yoder spoke highly of Gail’s research and her books.