The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History

The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History

The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History

The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History

Synopsis

A review of the original edition of The Burdens of Disease that appeared in ISIS stated, "Hays has written a remarkable book. He too has a message: That epidemics are primarily dependent on poverty and that the West has consistently refused to accept this." This revised edition confirms the book's timely value and provides a sweeping approach to the history of disease.

In this updated volume, with revisions and additions to the original content, including the evolution of drug-resistant diseases and expanded coverage of HIV/AIDS, along with recent data on mortality figures and other relevant statistics, J. N. Hays chronicles perceptions and responses to plague and pestilence over two thousand years of western history. Disease is framed as a multidimensional construct, situated at the intersection of history, politics, culture, and medicine, and rooted in mentalities and social relations as much as in biological conditions of pathology. This revised edition of The Burdens of Disease also studies the victims of epidemics, paying close attention to the relationships among poverty, power, and disease.

Excerpt

Disease and illness have obvious importance to human life. In recent years, popular awareness of them has sharpened with concerns about a new worldwide pandemic, perh aps of some form of Asian bird flu spreading to humans. More than ever some understanding of the workings of disease within Western (and world) history should inform our responses to present and future epidemic crises. This book, a second and revised version of the original, presents a view that emphasizes alike the individual reality of sickness and death, the social responses to such physical illness, and the changing ways in which Western societies have constructed the meaning of disease.

Disease is both a pathological reality and a social construction. Both material evidence for it and convictions about it exist; concentration on one to the exclusion of the other (as some earlier historical writing has done) has sometimes made a neater story, but an incomplete one. Especially during the period from the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth, disease seemed an objective biological phenomenon, and those who combated it were scientific physicians. A large literature in the history of medicine resulted, one that focused on those figures from the past whose actions and thoughts most closely foretold the model of modern Western biomedicine. That literature usually said little about the effects of disease on social structures or on individual, everyday lives. More recently two other conceptions of disease complicated this positivist picture. Many social scientists and historians came to consider disease above all as a cultural construct, rooted in mental habits and social relations rather than in objective biological conditions of pathology. Other writing saw disease as a force in its own right, an implacable product of a biological world in which humans are prey as well as predators. That view, associated with historians’ concern with the . . .

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