Welcome to a virtual tour of the historical collections of the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Today we are featuring collections about epidemics: some mild, others deadly, some global, others local.
These collections document contemporary research—often including data collection and analyses—which today can increase our understanding of infectious disease at population, individual, and genetic levels. These collections also preserve the stories of people whose lives were shaped by epidemics.
NLM staff have selected these highlights from the collections for you to explore. We welcome questions! Use the comment feature below to share your thoughts.
When future researchers look back at outbreaks in the modern era, what resources will they want to explore? Of the news and information that is created and shared digitally over the web, what will remain to be examined one, ten, or even fifty years from now? This content is in a constant state of change and at high risk for loss.
The NLM web archive collection on Global Health Events, is a selective collection of websites archived by the National Library of Medicine beginning in 2014 related to global health events, including the 2014 and 2016 Ebola outbreaks, Zika virus disease in 2015-2016, and the current Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Included in the archive are websites and social media of government and non-government organizations, journalists, healthcare workers, and scientists in the United States and around the world, with an aim to collect and preserve a diversity of perspectives. Archived websites are primarily in English. NLM continues to develop, review, describe, and add content to the collection guided by the NLM Collection Development Guidelines.
Selections from NLM Digital Collections
NLM Digital Collections provides free online access to digitized materials selected from the rich historical collections. Materials in many formats related to epidemics have been digitized and made available here. For example, you can read the ground-breaking Natural and political observations mentioned in a following index, and made upon the Bills of mortality, 1676, by John Graunt. Graunt proposed the basic methods of population-data science using counts of both baptisms and mortalities—not just for plague, but also for more ordinary causes.
Images from the History of Medicine (IHM), available in NLM Digital Collections, is a digitized set of images selected from the historical collections. Here are a few images that illustrate the experience of epidemics of scarlet fever, cholera and polio.
Books and Journals
This group of materials consists of 518 English language monographs, selected for digitization from the NLM historical collections, dating from 1817 to 1900 dealing with the cholera pandemics of that period including:
- Cholera!!! Caution to the Public, by the New York (N.Y.) Board of Commissioners of Health, New York, 1865
- Do Small-Pox and Cow-Pox Afford Any Protection from Asiatic Cholera? With Some Observations, by Ambrose Blacklock, Dumfries, 1866
- How to Make a City Cholera Proof, Poultney Bigelow, New York, 1893
The Eternal Fight introduces the work of the newly formed World Health Organization in 1948 and emphasizes the international nature of epidemic disease, which is easily spread through air and sea travel.
Watch a few other films related to public health events and epidemics:
- The Silent Invader—Prominent physicians and the head of the US Public Health Service in 1957 address types of influenza, the nature of the virus, mortality rates, spread patterns, vaccines, the physician’s responsibility, and medical advice for people who fall ill.
- Asian influenza vaccination—These television spots encouraged individuals and families to receive flu vaccinations during the Asian influenza pandemic of 1957–1958.
- AIDS: Dr. Anthony Fauci—The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, presents research, findings, and questions related to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 1984.
NLM Exhibitions and Events
The National Library of Medicine curates stories about the social and cultural history of science and medicine that enhance awareness of and appreciation for the collections and health information resources of the National Library of Medicine. This work encourages enthusiasm for history and nurtures young professionals in history, the health professions, and library sciences.
Explore scholarship around the history of Epidemics at NLM.
The Politics of Yellow Fever in Alexander Hamilton’s America considers how science and politics informed the response to the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia and examines the ways in which efforts to confront the disease helped shape the development of the nation’s public health infrastructure over a century later.
Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture illustrates an iconic history of AIDS alongside lesser-known examples of historical figures who changed the course of the pandemic.
Rashes to Research: Scientists and Parents Confront the 1964 Rubella Epidemic highlights the work of researchers and parents to limit the impact of rubella in the years before an effective vaccine nearly eliminated the disease from the United States.
The C. Everett Koop Papers: AIDS, the Surgeon General, and the Politics of Public Health—C. Everett Koop (1916–2013) was an American pediatric surgeon who pioneered important improvements in the surgical treatment of children. As U.S. Surgeon General from 1981 to 1989, he turned the office into an authoritative platform from which to educate the nation on major public health concerns including smoking, violence, and, most urgently, AIDS.
The Wilbur A. Sawyer Papers: The Yellow Fever Laboratory: Rockefeller Foundation, 1928-1937—Wilbur Augustus Sawyer (1879–1951) was a key figure in preventive medicine and international public health during the first part of the twentieth century. As Director of Health for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, he was one of the architects of the World Health Organization.
The Fred L. Soper Papers: Fighting Yellow Fever and Malaria in Brazil, 1928-1942—Fred L. Soper (1893–1977) was an American epidemiologist and public health administrator who won a Lasker Award in 1946 for organizing successful campaigns to eradicate yellow fever and malaria between 1927 and 1945. Throughout his career, he set new standards for disease control worldwide.
- Reporting, Recording, and Remembering the 1918 Influenza Epidemic Panel Discussion, April 29, 2020
- Viral Networks, Reconnected: A Digital Humanities/History of Medicine Research Forum Panel Discussion, April 4, 2019
- The Evolution of Viral Networks: H1N1, Ebola, and Zika Theresa MacPhail, PhD, Assistant Professor Science and Technology Studies, Stevens Institute of Technology, January 29, 2018
- Future Historical Collections: Archiving the 2014 Ebola Outbreak Christie Moffatt, MLIS, Archivist and Manager of the History of Medicine Division’s Digital Manuscripts Program, March 10, 2016
More Resources on the History of Epidemics
Finding Aids to Archive and Manuscript Collections
This is the central access point for electronic finding aids provided by the Archives and Modern Manuscripts, Prints and Photographs, and Films and Videos collections. These aids offer access points to large aggregations of materials. (Search Guide)
- U.S. Army Surgeon General’s New Orleans yellow fever collection, 1867-1868
- 2009 H1N1 Flu Pandemic Response Documentation Archive, 2009-2010
- 2009 H1N1 Flu Pandemic Response Archives oral history collection—historian Sheena Morrison conducted 36 interviews with DHHS federal staff as part of her work on the larger 2009 H1N1 Pandemic Response Documentation Archive.
- Digital Epidemiology and the COVID-19 Pandemic, Joseph Leiter NLM/MLA Lectureship, 2020
- The Next Influenza Pandemic and Ending the HIV/AIDS Pandemic: Follow the Science, Demystifying Medicine Lecture Series, 2019
- Joseph J. Kinyoun Memorial Lecture: Opioids: Epidemic of our Time and Impact on Infectious Disease, 2018
- MERS-CoV Research: Current Status and Future Priorities, 2013
The NLM Collection Tours series provides highlights from the diverse historical collections of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) on a variety of contemporary topics in health and medicine. Some library services, such as our scan on demand service are temporarily suspended due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but staff are available to answer questions.