The current COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the difficult ways that epidemiology—the science that studies the origin and spread of disease—is both practiced and communicated to broad public audiences. Yet, the history of modern epidemiology reveals that these constraints are anything but new.
This talk, based on the forthcoming book, The Filth Disease: Typhoid Fever and the Practices of Epidemiology in Victorian England, examines the emergence of a state-sponsored, global approach to epidemiology that began in nineteenth-century Britain. Through studying successive outbreaks of typhoid fever, a food-and-water-borne infectious disease that was at its height in the nineteenth-century industrial period, epidemiologists working in local, national, and colonial settings grappled with problems fundamental to modern epidemiology: what methods are best used to study outbreaks that do not follow geopolitical borders; how is epidemiology best communicated to various publics; and how does epidemiology contribute to positive public health change?
Thinking through the long history of epidemiology dovetails with broader patterns of pandemics and pandemic control in modern history as we face the global threat of COVID-19 today.