Pandemics in History

Did you know there have only been a few actual pandemics in history? Epidemics and endemics, yes, there have been plenty, but there is just a small number of recorded pandemics in human history, and it’s hard to believe sometimes that we are actually living through one right now. In modern history, this is the worst, but take a look at some pandemics of the past and how we got through them…

Here are some other pandemics in history…

The plague of justinian

(541-750 CE). Multiple bubonic plagues occurred throughout history, but scholars refer to the Plague of Justinian as the first pandemic. It’s origins have not been identified, but what we do know it is that it wiped out nearly half of the population during the rule of Roman Emperor Justinian from present day Turkey to what we now know as England. Today, we know that bubonic plague refers to a deadly bacterium called Yersinia pestis that travels through infected fleas and lice found on rats and humans alike. (If you’ve read “8 Nasty Historical Facts You Probably Didn’t Know,” you’re aware that people have historically struggled with proper hygiene.) First hand accounts of the disease describe fever, chills, and lymph nodes that are swollen and even oozing. It spread so rapidly that families were often unable to properly bury their loved ones. In Constantinople, the ruling government assisted in collecting bodies and burying them in mass graves outside city walls. Today, bacterial infections are relatively easily cured thanks to modern medicine and antibiotics. 1

the black death pandemic

1347-1352. The bubonic plague returned centuries later. It traveled from Asia Minor to the Crimean Peninsula via Tartar armies attacking a city called Kaffa on the shores of the Black Sea in present day Ukraine. The Tartars successfully sieged the city, and first hand accounts tell the tale of soldiers using a catapult to hurl the dead bodies of plague victims over the sides of the city walls. Traders fled the city during the siege and carried the plague with them to present day Turkey and across the Mediterranean to the shores of Sicily, which became ground zero of the mass spread across Europe. The Tartar soldiers made their way through eastern European countries and into India, leaving a trail of death along the way. Accounts of symptoms mimic those of the first bubonic plague. They spoke of “tumours in the groin or armpits,” which we now know to be swollen lymph nodes. Today we call this pandemic “The Black Death.” In the mid 14th century, they referred to it as “the pestilence.”2

the flu pandemic

1918-1919. Before COVID made its debut, the 1918 influenza outbreak was the worse pandemic in modern history. Five hundred million people were infected, 50 million of them died, nearly 700,000 of those were in the United States. Studies of the virus showed genes of avian origin, and with no vaccine or antibiotics to treat the bacterial infections common with the flu, the death toll was devastating. The only means of control available might sound familiar: “isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.”3 U.S. citizens were ordered to wear masks. Schools, churches, and other public places were shut down, but another wave of the pandemic hit when soldiers started to come home from war. Pressure to appear patriotic and censored media downplaying the severity of the disease led to many wrong turns. By the summer of 1919, the pandemic finally ended. The reason: so many were infected that nearly enough of the population either died or survived with immunity.4

the aids pandemic

1981-Present. It is very likely that HIV and AIDS debuted before the 1980s; however, with no obvious signs or symptoms, many may have died without ever knowing they were infected. Many believe it started in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the early 20th century and originated in chimpanzees, then transmitted to humans. By 1980, HIV, which can develop into AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), had reached Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Australia, reaching pandemic status. It was first recorded as severe cases of pneumonia and thought to predominantly affect the gay community until reports of transmission in heterosexual relations emerged in 1983.5 Initial infection of HIV can manifest as flu-like symptoms, but for the most part, it is asymptomatic until it develops into AIDS. AIDS symptoms include weight loss, fatigue, night sweats, and reoccurring infections. To date there is no known cure, but treatment has come a long way. Because HIV and AIDS are not airborne diseases, awareness and prevention techniques are the best strategies to protect yourself from contraction.

swine flu pandemic

2009. In 1976, a subtype of H1N1 known as the Swine Flu emerged in Fort Dix, NJ where one young man died and 13 were infected. The U.S. government, fearing a pandemic, hurried to create a mass immunization program. Just a under a decade before, a new strand of the flu had caused the death of over one million people globally. The immunization program was rushed and the swine flu pandemic of 1976 never happened, but a similar virus did make a global impact some 33 years later. The first occurrence of swine flu was in America during April 2009. It was not the same combination of flu viruses detected in Fort Dix in 1976, and it spread very quickly on a global scale. By June, it was declared a pandemic, and one year later, it resulted in “60.8 million illnesses, 273,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths in the U.S.” Vaccinations were made available in October 2009, and the World Health Organization declared an end to the spread in August 2010. Global estimates are scattered, but anywhere from 150,000 to 575,000 people died during the swine flu pandemic.6

Stay safe out there everyone. It’s not over, and we’re relying solely on the compassion and empathy of others at this point.

Click below to read more from…


  1. Kristina Sessa, The Ohio State University, Origins. “The Justinianic Plague.”
  2. John Frith, JMVH. “The History of Plague – Part 1. The Three Great Pandemics.”
  3. CDC. “History of 1918 Flu Pandemic.”
  4. “Spanish Flu.”
  5. Avert. “History of HIV and AIDS Overview.”
  6. Becker’s Hospital Review. “A look back at swine flu: 8 facts about the world’s last pandemic in 2009.”