Africa Colonialism Medicine

Podcast: Robert Koch in Colonial East Africa


Robert Koch (1843-1910) (source: Carl Zeiss Microscopy)

By Sofia Falzberger BA, Charlotte Fleischmann BA & Pamela Kultscher BA

The podcast discusses Robert Koch’s activities and medical experiments in Colonial East Africa.

1918 flu pandemic Humanitarianism Red Cross United States

Podcast: the American Red Cross and the 1918 flu pandemic

Volunteer nurses from The American red cross during flu epidemic (1918). Original image from Oakland Public Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

By Cedric Carlier, BA, and Viola Ziehaus, BA

The podcast discusses the role of the American Red Cross during the 1918 flu pandemic. It features an interview with a person from the time, the journalist Ms. Porter. Disclaimer: The historical character of “Ms. Porter” in this podcast is fictitious.


Asia Diplomacy Geopolitics

What impacts do epidemics have on geopolitical and diplomatic issues? The example of the Manchurian Plague

Gravediggers during the Manchurian Plague (papers of Dr. Richard Pearson Strong, on repository at Harvard University’s Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine)

By Cedric Carlier, BA


During these unsafe Covid times, we hear about different countries that use the emergency situation to their own good. During the past few months, we have noticed for instance that China, among others, has taken advantage of the pandemic to further extend its territory in the South China Sea. Although it is not clear if there is a direct link between the pandemic and their increasing aggression, others like the US Department of State argue that China is using the weakness of other countries due to the pandemic situation to expand its power in the South China Sea. In this blog post, I will explain how epidemics have an impact on the strategic advantages between states and have an impact on diplomacy, focusing mainly on China’s experience facing foreign threats during the Manchurian plague in the early 20th century and comparing it with the current situation.

The Great Manchurian Plague and the interests of the great powers

As Summers (2012) explains in The Great Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911: The Geopolitics of an Epidemic Disease, the plague occurred between 1910 and 1911 and caused the death of about 60 000 people, mostly in Manchuria (northeast China), even though other cases were also reported in other regions, such as Beijing and Tianjin. The Manchurian plague is a story of railroads, foreign markets and geopolitics on a huge scale. At a time of great international issues and even warfare, a deadly infectious disease appeared, killing and devastating on its way.

It is important to remark that several Great Powers were interested in the Manchurian region at the time. Not only Russia and Japan, but also France, Germany, Great Britain and the US had ambitions in Manchuria. China, which was extremely weak at the time, tried to use its political and diplomatic means to win over the Great Powers to its own advantage. Furthermore, alliances between the various nations were quite considerable: on the one hand, Russia was assisted by France and Germany and on the other hand, Japan and Great Britain cooperated. As for the United States, they decided to stay neutral, as they lacked alliances with European countries.

As the plague was spreading southward along the railway routes of Manchuria, both the Russian and Japanese foreign governments located in Harbin and in Dairen respectively started realizing the benefits and dangers the disease could bring. Despite the weakness of its government, however, China initially managed to resist these attacks on its sovereignty, but that did not last very long.

Russia tried to take advantage of the situation by bringing in more troops with the alleged aim to enforce quarantines and to control travel and population movements. Nonetheless, Russia’s influence in Manchuria was constantly becoming weaker, especially after its defeat in the Russo-Japanese war and the loss of dynamics during its Far East strategy. Furthermore, by the end of the plague, Russia’s main surrogate in Manchuria had great financial issues and his power was very limited in the region. Russia, nonetheless, still tried to take advantage of the Manchurian plague to regain control and keep its power in the region. However, the presence of other major economic and military powers, especially Japan, prevented Russia from expanding its power, which explains how its influence in Manchuria came to an end.

Japan’s interests in Manchuria and Korea were clear from the time of the Meiji Restoration, i.e., the political revolution of 1868. Furthermore, the Sino-Japanese war in 1895 and Russo-Japanese war in 1905 permitted Japan to exert great power in both Korea and later in Manchuria. During the Manchurian pandemic, Japan, which was already present in the southern part of Manchuria, saw an opportunity to consolidate its well-established position in the region by extending its influence in the field of public health, quarantines and other forms of population control. In January 1911, at the peak of the epidemic and before the International Plague Conference, the Japanese started bringing more troops to Manchuria and accommodating them in barracks along the South Manchuria Railway, claiming that the purpose of these constructions was to quarantine sick low-class passengers. In addition, Japan kept extending its influence northward towards Mukden, partly through the relocation of Viscount Oshima from Dairen to Mukden. It then claimed that he headed the Japanese Sanitation Commission, which was responsible for anti-plague work there and thus needed to be transferred.

International plague conference in Mukden

The international plague conference in Mukden played a crucial role in the geopolitical and diplomatic issues of Manchuria. The international conference meant that China was admitting that it needed assistance in managing the growing pandemic, even though it would only accept international help on its terms. The conclusions of the conference were that China had to improve its public health organization, its medical education system, and its hospital and quarantine provisions. In the aftermath of the conference, however, both China and Japan attempted to take advantage of these dynamics to increase their influence in Manchuria by developing new initiatives.

After the conference, Japan used its agent of colonialism, i.e., the South Manchuria Railway Company, to further extend its influence in the region, by for example founding a new medical school in Mukden, which was controlled and staffed by Kyoto Imperial University. It also founded in China the North Manchurian Plague Prevention Service, which represented the first stage toward a national public health system. It was, however, very Westernized, as it had a senior staff of ethnic Chinese who had studied Western medicine. Furthermore, the junior staff physicians were often graduates of Western medical schools in China. The organization later became the National Quarantine Service, which was, however, ended due to Japanese aggression in 1937.


In summary, major economic and military powers such as Japan and Russia took advantage of China’s vulnerability to the plague in Manchuria to try to expand their territory and thereby refine their diplomatic and geopolitical strategies. Russia, however, was less successful in this respect, and so it is mainly Japan that achieved its expansion in the region. Thus, whereas about 100 years ago China was the victim invaded by various Great Powers such as Russia and Japan, it is now being criticized for “exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea” (US Department of State) during the current pandemic. Based on the events of the Manchurian plague and the current situation in the South China Sea, we can easily conclude that it is not at all uncommon for Great Powers to take advantage of pandemic situations in a geopolitical and diplomatic way and that the power positions can change very quickly throughout history.

Historical information on the plague in this text taken from William C. Summers (2012): The Great Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911: The Geopolitics of an Epidemic Disease. New Haven: Yale University Press

Welle (, Deutsche. “Is China Taking Advantage of COVID-19 to Pursue South China Sea Ambitions? | DW | 26.05.2020.” DW.COM. Accessed January 23, 2021.

Class Epidemics and Gender Racism Vulnerability

The virus comes by car: the social construction of asymptomatic carriers

By Pamela Kultscher, BA

An international pandemic bears enormous challenges for all governments and health officials. One of those challenges is not to give way to the temptation to name scapegoats within the population, especially if a disease is transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, i.e. people with no symptoms but enough pathogen count to transmit the disease. On December 3rd, 2020, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz got caught in this communication trap when he put the blame for the rising COVID-19 infections in his country since the summer on the population with roots in Turkey and the Balkans. His reasoning was that they had travelled to their countries of origin for the summer holidays and therefore had imported infections to a supposedly healthy and virus-free Austria. By doing so, Kurz labelled people with migration background as others and constructed the image of a disproportionate number of infections tied to this population group.

There’s something about Mary: a historical perspective

Looking back onto the history of pandemics, it becomes quite clear that this was not the first time that government officials practiced othering and thus constructed an image of certain groups as the culprits in a pandemic. The most prominent single case, especially because it found its way into the English language as an everyday expression, is that of Mary Mallon, referred to by the media as “Typhoid Mary”. Foss explains that the term is used to indicate a person who is “an extreme carrier of disease, a burden on society, a scourge of contagion”. [1]

Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant to the United States who famously was arrested and put in quarantine in 1906 because health officials of the city of New York were convinced that she was an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid fever and had caused, in her function as a (somewhat renowned) cook to wealthy New York families, an outbreak of the disease resulting in several deaths. The concept of asymptomatic carriers was new at the time, and when Mary Mallon was labelled as such by sanitation engineer George Soper, she was the perfect person to be made an example of.

Class, race and gender as determinants of health & accountability

Mary Mallon was quarantined for the first time from 1907 to 1910 and after she was set free under the condition to never work as a cook again, was arrested again in 1915. She had not been able to finance her life with a job other than cooking and had thus infected 25 people working in the kitchen of a maternity hospital. As with the first quarantine, she was sent to Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island and lived in a small cottage on the hospital grounds until her death in 1938. She had been detained, without a court conviction for any crime and solely in the name of public health, for a total of 26 years.

Why was Mary Mallon singled out? The literature agrees on three socio-economic traits that predestined her for othering: class, race and gender. [2 3 4] Mary Mallon might have worked at New York’s finest addresses but as a cook, she was part of the working class. And even though she could write and read well, New York’s health officials denied her the capability to understand her health status. [5]

Furthermore, Mary Mallon was Irish and the Irish weren’t necessarily perceived as white at that time. [6] Health officials often blamed epidemics on non-white “races” and did not hesitate to act. In 1900, tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants to San Francisco found themselves confined to Chinatown, which had been closed off by health officials over night because of a supposed outbreak of the bubonic plague. [7] Another characteristic that was ascribed to the Irish at the time was stubbornness. This was perceived as the reason why Mary refused to receive potentially life-threatening treatment as a cure for the Typhoid bacillii roaming her intestines. [8]

And last but not least, Mary Mallon was a woman, albeit not an ordinary woman for her time. Mary was unmarried, (physically) strong and did not have children. She was perceived as somewhat masculine and did not fit into the idea people had of respectable women at the time.[9 10] The fact that she had no husband to support her, no children that needed her and that she was not perceived as how a woman should be, made it possible for her to be detained for a lifetime without a prison sentence.[11 12]  This hypothesis is supported by the fact that while there were more than four hundred other asymptomatic carriers of the disease during her lifetime, none of them faced the same fate as her.[13] Foss argues that Mallon has been continually dehumanized by being reduced to her health status, be it by the media or health officials.[14]

Applause is not enough

Sebastian Kurz has made use of the same kind of dehumanization when he blamed immigrants who are members of certain ethnic groups and the working class, and due to their professions very often women, for rising infection numbers. He omitted to mention that these are exactly the people who have been applauded for continuing to do their work during the beginning of the pandemic: the nursing staff, the supermarket cashiers, the gas station salespeople and so many more who build the backbone of Austria’s economy. Most likely, they did not import their infections from their summer holiday destinations but got infected doing essential work in Austria. This is not how they should be thanked.

Recommended sources:

Rund Abdelfatah; Ramtin Arablouei; Julie Caine; N’Jeri Eaton; Laine Kaplan Levenson; Kia Miakka Natisse; Laurence Wu; Jamie York (Producer) (2020): There’s Something About Mary [Throughline]. Retrieved from [21.12.2020]

Bourdain, Anthony (2005): Typhoid Mary. London: Bloomsberg Publishing.

Fitzgerald & Rimini (2019): Typhus Mary. 50 Hertz. Bern: Der gesunde Menschenversand. Retrieved from [10.01.2021]


[1] Foss, Katherine A. (2020): Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media and Collective Memory. Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, p. 99.

[2] ibid, p. 119.

[3] Hasian, Marouf A. (2007): Macht, medizinisches Wissen und die rhetorische Erfindung der “Typhoid Mary”. In: Philipp Sarasin; Silvia Berger; Hänseler Marianne; Spürri Myriam (Eds.), Bakteriologie und Moderne: Studien zur Biopolitik des Unsichtbaren. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 496-521, pp. 506-517.

[4] Leavitt, Judith Walzer (1996): Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, pp. 96-125.

[5] Hasian (2007), p. 508.

[6] Ignatiev, Noel (1995): How the Irish became White. New York, London: Routledge; pp. 2-3.

[7] Hasian (2007), p. 507.

[8] ibid, p. 508.

[9] ibid.

[10] Foss (2020), p. 107.

[11] ibid, p. 119.

[12] Leavitt (1996), p. 97.

[13] Marineli, Filio; Gregory Tsoucalas; Marianna Karamanou; George Androutsos (2013): Mary Mallon (1869-1938) and the history of typhoid fever. Annals of Gastroenterology, 26(2): 132-134, p. 134.

[14] Foss (2020), p. 106.

Environment Latin America

Epidemics in the Conquest of Latin America

Smallpox epidemic in the 16th century Florentine Codex.

By Viviana Espinosa Moreno, BA

The mass movement of people not only implies the mobilization of goods, culture, beliefs, and technology. Other agents can be relevant when we study the impact of such movements in host societies. Especially in exploring diseases and epidemics the agency of certain non-human elements like animals, plants, or microorganisms are pivotal to understand the history of some peoples and moreover to highlight the relationship between nature and society or diseases and society.

A demographic disaster

One of the historical events that elucidate this relationship is the conquest of America. It is recorded that more than half of the original indigenous population disappeared due to about 20 epidemics that were introduced within the 16th and 18th centuries. A more recent update estimated that an initial population of 54 million (similar to our 60.5 million) was reduced to 5.6 million, thus a 90% decline (Koch et al., 2018).

One of the theories that explain this demographic disaster is according to Crosby (1976) what he calls the “virgin soil epidemic” defining it as “those in which the populations at risk have had no previous contact with the diseases that strike them and are therefore immunologically almost defenseless.” In his point of view, this explains to some extent the success of the colonization project over the native populations.

However, we also must take into account other factors that created an ideal environment for diseases to spread, having a deadly effect on indigenous peoples. One example were the poor working conditions in the forced labor systems such as “Encomiendas and Mitas,” which deteriorated the physical health of indigenous peoples. These conditions increased the likelihood to die of any diseases. Accordingly, changes in the economic and social structures among the indigenous communities made them more vulnerable and defenceless to these factors.


Influenza was one of the first diseases that traveled with the Spanish in the era of Columbus. The Spanish veterinarian parasitologist and historian, Miguel Cordero del Campillo, showed in his work, “Crónica de Indias” that the first epidemic of European origin that reached America was the flu, which appeared to have had a zoonotic nature. The horses and pigs that Columbus embarked on the Canary Islands on his second trip to America fell ill from a respiratory illness identifiable with influenza, which also affected some crew members. This included Columbus himself, according to various chroniclers (Cordero del Campillo, 2001). There is evidence that the disease appeared the day after the disembarkation and subsequently spread on the island of what is today the Dominican Republic. There, it affected the Taíno community with particular intensity. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, recounts how “people began to fall ill […] with terrible fever.” Another chronicler, Fernández de Oviedo, reports that: “more than two parts or half of the Spaniards died, and of the Indians themselves so many died that they could not be counted” (De Las Casas, 1877)


Another epidemic that contributed to the demographic catastrophe of Pre-Hispanic America was smallpox, the most contagious and deadly of the epidemics in America. In Puerto Rico, the first case of smallpox was documented in 1518, apparently first transmitted by an African slave, who came from one of the slave ships that arrived on the island. In Mexico, according to the chronicles, smallpox was also introduced in 1520 by a black slave, Francisco Eguía, who arrived with an expedition led by Spanish conquistador Pánfilo Narváez (147?–1528). (McCaa 1994). The disease first spread through Veracruz, then later extended to Tlaxcala, until reaching Tenochtitlan in the same year. In Tenochtitlan, one of the most densely populated cities of its time, smallpox spread with such force and speed that it contributed to the fall of the city.

A large part of Mexico’s indigenous population disappeared in the 16th century. Today’s specialists agree that the mortality of the smallpox epidemics of 1520, 1545, and 1576 could have been close to 80%. To give some numbers on the magnitude of the tragedy, McNeill, in his book “Plagues and People” (1977), calculates that in Mexico, of the 25 million people who may have existed shortly before the arrival of the Spanish, by the year 1620 only about 1.6 million remained. The smallpox disease even spread from Central America through Panama to the Andes and reached the Inca Empire before the arrival of another conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, in Peru in 1531 (García 2003). In consequence, these communities were much more vulnerable when the Spanish arrived.

Those are just some examples of the diseases that were present in America in colonial times. It would be possible to also name measles, typhus, and yellow fever, among others. As said above, these diseases were introduced by external agents to communities with a lack of immunity to such pathogens and in consequence were defenseless. The conquest of the continent and its peoples could be explained to some extent by the contribution of non-human agents as a silent army that besides the imposition of new socioeconomic order results in the breakdown of the indigenous structures and the fall of the main pre-Hispanic cities.


Cordero del Campillo, M. (2001). Crónicas de Indias. Junta de Castilla y León, Consejería de Educación y Cultura.

Crosby, A. W. (1976). Virgin soil epidemics as a factor in the aboriginal depopulation in America. The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History, 289-299.

De Las Casas, B. (1877). Historia de las Indias (Vol. 1). Imprenta y litografia de I. Paz. García Cáceres, U. (2003). La implantación de la viruela en los Andes, la historia de un holocausto. Revista Peruana de Medicina Experimental y Salud Pública, 20(1), 41-50.

Koch, A., Brierley, C., Maslin, M. M., & Lewis, S. L. (2019). Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492. Quaternary Science Reviews, 207, 13-36.

McCaa, R. (1995). Spanish and Nahuatl Views on smallpox and demographic catastrophe in Mexico. The Journal of interdisciplinary history, 25(3), 397-431. McNeill, W. H., & McNeill, W. (1998). Plagues and peoples. Anchor.