Plagues and History

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Plagues have changed history, stopped armies in their tracks and altered the fate of nations. Mary and Christopher Dobson will outline the impact of plagues on human history and reflect on related challenges that will be faced by future generations. Taking a broad chronological perspective, their talk will range from the plagues of antiquity and the medieval period, including the Black Death of the mid-14th century, to the major infectious diseases of the 20th and 21st centuries, such as the 1918-19 Spanish flu and the recent pandemic of HIV /AIDS. They will also highlight the continuing importance of addressing the ‘silent’ killers, such as the many diseases that afflict children and the poor in low-income countries, as well as discussing the increasingly prevalent afflictions of ageing and affluent societies, including dementia and diabetes. Tremendous advances have been made over the centuries in our understanding, prevention, and treatment of disease, with triumphs such as the eradication of smallpox and a substantial rise in life expectancy in many parts of the world. Major challenges now are to find ways of preventing modern ‘plagues’, such as those facing our ageing populations, and this talk will conclude by looking at scientific research that offers hope for current and future generations.


Mary Dobson is an historian of medicine with wide ranging interests in the plagues of the past. She has held a number of Research Fellowships, including a Harkness Fellowship at Harvard University, and was formerly Director of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Green Templeton College. She is author of a variety of publications including a groundbreaking monograph, Contours of Death and Disease in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 1997), and, most recently, two books for general audiences: Disease: the Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers (Quercus, 2007) and The Story of Medicine: From Bloodletting to Biotechnology (Quercus, 2013). Her next book, Murderous Contagion, will be published in October 2014.

Christopher Dobson is the John Humphrey Plummer Professor of Chemical and Structural Biology at the University of Cambridge and Master of St. John’s College. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Academy of Medical Sciences and a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences. He has received numerous awards, including both the Davy and Royal Medals of the Royal Society, and achieved international recognition for his research on the nature of protein misfolding and its links to disease. His work provides a fundamentally new view of the origins and means of progression of many of the most debilitating and increasingly prevalent ‘plagues’ of the modern era, ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to Type II diabetes.