Mass death during modern epidemics: horrors and their consequences

Cohn, S. (2020) Mass death during modern epidemics: horrors and their consequences. In: Stearns, P. N. (ed.) The Routledge History of Death since 1800. Series: Routledge histories. Routledge: London, pp. 45-62. ISBN 9780367137168 (doi: 10.4324/9780429028274-2)

Full text not currently available from Enlighten.

Publisher's URL:


With the spread of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and the accusations of blame and discrimination that followed, historians, social scientists, and journalists proclaimed that big epidemics have always brought out the “diabolic side of human nature”. These pronouncements on the past have, however, been based on at best only a handful of examples. Not only have these commentators paid a huge injustice to the outpouring of compassion and volunteerism with HIV/AIDS in their own times, but they distorted history, seeing, for example, the initial social reactions to the Black Death as the norm rather than realizing it as a colossal exception in world history. After a prelude on the big epidemics of the classical and medieval past, this essay concentrates on global patterns during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To understand epidemics’ socio-psychological responses, it argues that the underlying diseases mattered and reactions to them were hardly one-dimensionally negative. Moreover, those diseases more prone to provoke blame and violence could differ radically in the composition of the crowds, the targets of violence, and ideologies as illustrated globally with the histories of cholera, smallpox, and plague. Finally, hate and blame were not universally or even normally the responses to pandemics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Instead, as with yellow fever in the US and the Great Influenza of 1918–20 globally, mass volunteerism and compassion were the epidemic side effects.

Item Type:Book Sections
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Cohn, Professor Samuel
Authors: Cohn, S.
College/School:College of Arts & Humanities > School of Humanities > History
Published Online:14 October 2020

University Staff: Request a correction | Enlighten Editors: Update this record