Plagues and Epidemics in History (Fall Online Course)

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In this free adult course with historian of science Darin Hayton, learn how societies have responded to and been shaped by epidemics.

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The Wagner's free adult courses have moved online until it is safe to hold classes in-person.


Plagues and Epidemics in History with Professor Darin Hayton

6 Wednesdays, October 7 to November 11, 2020, 6:30 - 7:45 p.m. A Zoom link will be sent to registered students.

Epidemics seem to burst onto the historical scene unannounced, killing with complete impunity aristocracy and paupers alike. Through a series of case studies, this course analyzes the impact of epidemics on human societies, including mortality rates, efforts to contain the contagion and the infected, attempts to treat the purported illness, and expressions in art and literature. Examples will concentrate on pre-modern epidemics, from the Plague of Athens in the fifth century BCE through the great medieval plagues and the French Disease (typically equated with syphilis) to the late, major plague outbreaks in the seventeenth century. The course will conclude by looking at more recent epidemics, Yellow Fever in eighteenth-century Philadelphia and Typhoid Mary in early twentieth-century New York.

This course will examine a variety of related questions: How did lay people explain the advent and spread of an epidemic? How did various experts — e.g., religious, legal, medical experts — account for, treat, and protect against contagions and epidemics? How have those same experts used plagues to blame or stigmatize groups of people? To what extent have epidemics been agents of social, economic, religious and political change, or to what extent were they the product of those changes? What is the relationship, if any, between epidemics and public health?

Course Schedule

1. Wednesday, October 7v- Disease or Epidemic or Plague? That depends

2. Wednesday, October 14 - Ancient Plagues

3. Wednesday, October 21 - The Black Death (facts, figures, explanations)

4. Wednesday, October 28 - The Black Death (art, literature, consequences)

5. Wednesday, November 4 - The French Disease

6. Wednesday, November 11 - Modern Epidemics, Yellow Fever and Typhoid Fever

About the Professor

Dr. Darin Hayton is a historian of science whose research focuses on the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge, especially the science of the stars (astrology and astronomy) in pre-Modern Europe and the late Byzantine Empire. He is an Associate Professor of the history of science at Haverford College and Chair of the Editorial Board of Lever Press, an innovative Open Access scholarly press. He recently published “The Crown and the Cosmos. Astrology and the Politics of Maximilian I.” He has taught for the Wagner since 2016.

Wagner staff will coordinate course registration and questions about online participation. For more information, please contact:

Susan Glassman, Director – 215-763-6529 x14 or

Coryn Wolk, Communications & Program Coordinator – 215-763-6529 x24 or

The first edition of Joseph Grünpeck's pamphlet on syphilis, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra (1496) (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).

Cover image: "The Syphilitic," attr. Albrecht Dürer, 1496.

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