Illustrations: Théophile Bartz

What We Learned From Smallpox, Measles, Cholera, and Other Health Crises

No two diseases are the same, but we may be able to draw upon what happened in prior outbreaks to illuminate the path forward

Erin Blakemore
Published in
15 min readMay 19, 2020


The novel coronavirus is just that — completely new. But disease is very old, indeed, and outbreaks, epidemics, and even pandemics have plagued humankind since the beginning of time. Could past pandemics help illuminate the path ahead? Here are some lessons worth considering.

Cholera: Geography matters

In 19th-century Europe, scientists and the public thought cholera was caused by “miasma,” or bad air. The highly contagious diarrheal infection is actually caused by Vibrio cholerae, a nasty bacterium that’s spread through feces. But in a time before the germ theory of disease had taken hold, it seemed like periodic outbreaks — even pandemics — were simply inevitable.

In 1854, the world was in the midst of the third of six cholera pandemics, and London was hit hard. A doctor named John Snow practiced in the city’s Soho district, which three out of four residents abandoned when it was hit by the disease. But Snow had a hunch, and stayed behind to interview families of victims.

By using interviews and mapping to determine the precise cause of an outbreak, Snow pioneered the outbreak investigation.

Snow initially thought cholera was spread by foul air, too, and though he didn’t uncover a cure, his interviews did uncover a pattern. The more than 500 people who died in just 10 days all lived in a cluster near a public water pump on Broad Street. When Snow examined water from the pump under a microscope, he noticed “small white, flocculent particles.” He convinced local officials to remove the pump’s handle so people could no longer access the contaminated water — and the outbreak ground to a sudden halt.

Snow had just discovered that cholera was waterborne, but he also had contributed…



Erin Blakemore

I’m a freelance journalist from Boulder, CO covering history, science, health, and wonder for outlets like The Washington Post, TIME, and National Geographic.