By Holly Tucker (Editor-in Chief)
And here I thought that regular bathing in Purell would spare me from H1N1. A quixotic illusion, it turns out, for someone who teaches and has a grade-schooler. In the midst of mild fever, I started thinking about the origins of the term pandemic…
The seventeenth-century physician Gideon Harvey (no relation to William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of blood) first coined the term “pandemic” in 1666. Writing in the wake of the cataclysmic Great Plague of London, Harvey used “pandemic” to define “death’s direct door to most English.” He was not talking about the bubonic plague, which claimed over nearly 20% of London’s population in just a matter of months. Instead, it was consumption, or what we now call tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis may not seem as flashy or dramatic as other scourges like the plague, cholera, and smallpox, but it was no less deadly in the early-modern era. The disease, which scholars say peaked in urban centers sometime in the eighteenth century, cut a swath of destruction across much of Europe and the rest of the world, killing millions of people.
Harvey explained that diseases of remarkable “malignity and catching nature” should be called “a Pandemick, or Endemick, or rather a Vernacular Disease.” Pandemic comes from the Greek pan (all) and demos (people). And in one sentence, Harvey captured the complexity of widespread illness. It menaces the world (pandemic), its nations (endemic), and local communities (vernacular).
For Harvey, tuberculosis indeed stretched across the world. Yet as the title of his treatise makes clear, his world was surprisingly small. Morbus anglicus [English Death]: the world began in England, and ended in England.
Harvey was not alone in his insistence on nation-centered cartographies of disease. The sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries had the “French Pox” and the “English Sweate.” And more recently, influenza names have staked their own claim on the world map: the Russian Flu (1889-1890), the devastating Spanish Flu (1918-1919), the Asian Flu (1957-1958), and the Hong Kong Flu (1968).
Interestingly, since 2005, there has been an important shift in the naming of pandemic strains of illness. The Avian Flu and the Swine Flu are not just novel viruses; they have had historically novel names, breaking as they do from national monikers. But they, too, follow along borders—species borders, that is.
The term Swine Flu stresses the non-human origins of the virus. It reinforces an idealized notion that, like independent nation-states, there can be a firm distinction between animals and humans. But as the melting-pot of DNA in this viral strain shows, the distinction may just have been illusory to begin with.