Harvard Libraries Offers Historical Perspective on Disease

The Harvard University Library Open Collections Program launched “Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics” at the end of February. It’s available at . This collection contains more than 500,000 pages of digitized books, serials, manuscripts, etc and was designed to offer historical perspectives on epidemiology.

There are a few different ways to review the collection. A timeline covers 1494–1948, and starts with “Syphilis, 1494–1923” and ends with the founding of the World Health Organization in 1948. Some of the entries on the timeline are just data points and facts (“Morton presents the first detailed clinical description of malaria and its treatment with cinchona.”) while the red-bold-italicized entries are links to data pages.

The data page for “The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793”, for example, starts over with an overview of the disease and the way it impacted Philadelphia in 1793, with notable figures in the fight against the epidemic. After the overview there’s a pointer to Web pages (or in this case, Web page) and then a list of publications. At the end there are references for the page as a whole, but let’s get back to the publications.

The publications are fascinating in that they’re contemporary, written within ten years of the epidemic. “A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia…” was written in 1794; ” Observations Upon the Origin of the Malignant Bilious, or Yellow Fever in Philadelphia, and Upon the Means of Preventing It: Addressed to the Citizens of Philadelphia” was written in 1799. Click on the title of a publication and you’ll be able to page through the publications, viewing their pages as either text or images. In this case I think I like the images better; I took a look at a text page and it was still doing the f-for-s thing, so I was reading things like this: “They are firft afted upon, by the heat of the fun…” I can handle this better when it’s the original image.

Epidemics and diseases certainly do not make for light reading, but from a historical perspective this is an amazing exhibit.

Categories: News