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Epidemics Past/Present/Future (Elise Smith)


The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted two primary areas of engagement for historians of medicine. First, there has been broad interest in how the history of epidemics and disease can inform interpretations of the current crisis, and second, historians have been asked to help construct archives of the pandemic for future research. Prior to meeting for this seminar, you will be asked to sift through the barrage of materials that have connected historians to the pandemic, or which are being created for the use of future historians. In the session itself, we will consider the value of history at times of crisis, and whether the experience of studying past disease outbreaks can help to shape current collecting efforts.


Seminar Questions:


  1. Does the history of medicine offer any ‘lessons’ for managing (or responding to) the Covid-19 pandemic?
  2. Has the experience Covid-19 pandemic offered any ‘lessons’ for historians examining past disease events?
  3. What accounts for the ‘global frenzy of collecting’ during this pandemic?
  4. What research questions or concerns should guide Covid-19 archiving projects, and are they being sufficiently met by current initiatives?



I’ve compiled a list of readings, databases, and audio-visual resources under three headings: Past, Present, and Future. Dip into/explore as much as possible to get a sense of how historians are currently engaging (or expected to in the future) with the Covid-19 pandemic. I’d recommend starting with three key readings from the ‘Past’ section, however, marked with an asterix (*).


 PAST (Historians respond to the pandemic):

Bulletin of the History of Medicine (Special Issue: Reimagining Epidemics, Vol 94, Issue 4, Winter 2020):

(*I’d recommend starting with Charles E. Rosenberg’s ‘What is an Epidemic’, reproduced in this issue—it has become a classic template for historians—and then looking at some of the current responses to this work later in the issue).


Centaurus (Special Issue: Histories of Epidemics in the Time of COVID-19, Vol 62, Issue 2, May 2020):

(*Start with the introductory essay by Erica Charters and Richard McKay for some historiographical reflections)


*Robert Peckham, ‘Covid-19 and the Anti-Lessons of History’, The Lancet 395 (March 14, 2020): (


American Historical Association: A Bibliography of Historians’ Responses to COVID-19:


Consortium for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) Podcast Series Perspectives on the COVID-19 Pandemic (March-June, 2020):


University of Oxford ‘How Pandemics End’ Interview Series (April-June 2021):


American Association for the History of Medicine Online Conference ‘Pandemic, Creating a Usable Past’ (May 8-9, 2020):


Johns Hopkins History of Medicine Department Pandemic Responses:



PRESENT (Archiving Initiatives):

This is just a small (!) sample of projects and directives that have been designed to archive various aspects of the pandemic, in a variety of different mediums (print/video/audio/objects/photographs). Many individual cities, universities, societies, public libraries, and museums are creating their own archives. In addition to the examples listed below, you might like to search out further archives relevant to a place of geographic interest, or your research focus, or your own pandemic experience.


A Journal of the Plague Year (crowd-sourced archive created by Arizona State University):

(For further info see:


Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Web Archive (International Internet Preservation Consortium):


NHS Voices of Covid-19:

(See also the related seminar series, ‘Covid conversations’:


Design in Quarantine (V&A and Royal College of Art):


Pandemic Objects (V&A):


Canada Covid Portrait:


Picturing Lockdown Collection (Historic England):


Viral Archive of the ‘signs, marks & graffiti of COVID-19 (University of Warwick/University College Cork/University College London):



Mass Observation:

(See for seminars exploring this imitative)


How to Gather the Oral Histories of COVID-19:


AIU Race Relations Resource Centre and Education Trust Covid-19 Collecting from Manchester’s Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic communities:


Scottish Council on Archives (various initiatives throughout Scotland):


Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (interviews with practitioners):


British Library Covid-19 Radio Archive:


Some additional calls for oral histories and objects (predominantly American):



FUTURE (Reflections on creating archives):


Laura Spinney, ‘What are Covid Archivists Keeping for Tomorrow’s Historians,’ Nature (17 December 2020)


Andrew Dickson, ‘How Will We Tell the Story of the Coronavirus?’ New Yorker (9 December 2020):


Audra D. S. Birch, ‘What Historians Will See When they Look Back on the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020,’ New York Times (15 April 2020):