The 10 Deadliest Epidemics in Human History
In an age of modern medicine and cleanliness so obsessive that we’ve actually created new diseases that are STRONGER than our cleanliness, it’s easy to understand why Ebola is so frightening, even in America.
But this period in human history is infinitesimal on a geological scale, and essentially nonexistent on an astronomical one. In short, diseases have been killing us much longer, and in much larger numbers, than we’ve killed them.
Historical figures are obviously tough to verify, but the following outbreaks are certainly among the deadliest the human race has ever seen.
Plague of Athens, 430-427 BCE
Number dead: One quarter to one third of the population
This is one of the first epidemics for which we have a somewhat reliable first-person account. Athens was at war with Sparta when this plague broke out, and though its symptoms were described in detail by Thucydides, historians still have trouble agreeing on its cause. One convincing theory is that it was some kind of viral hemorrhagic fever, similar to Ebola. Whatever the cause, the navy-based war strategy of Athenian ruler Pericles required people to move from the country to crowded urban settings, likely exacerbating the spread of the disease.
Antonine Plague, 165-180
Where: Roman Empire
Number dead: Around 5 million
The Antonine Plague was named after the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who wound up dying from the second flare-up of the disease in 180. Troops brought the illness back to Rome after a campaign in the Near East, and historians hypothesize that smallpox was to blame, though measles is another potential culprit. Two thousand people per day died at the height of the disease; by comparison, Ebola has claimed a little more than 11,000 lives in approximately two years.
Plague of Justinian, 541-542
Where: Byzantine Empire
Number dead: 25 million
Caused by the same bacteria that kicked off the Black Death (more on that to come), the Plague of Justinian brutalized the Byzantine Empire at a moment when it was returning to the prosperity of the Roman era.
In subsequent outbreaks, the Plague of Justinian wound up killing up to 50 million people, or around half the world’s population. Now that's a deadly epidemic.
Black Death, 1346-1353
Number dead: Anywhere between 30% and 70% of the population
Before you criticize that huge range of death estimates, keep in mind that all the bookkeepers were DYING OF THE PLAGUE. The Black Death -- caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria -- actually triggered a few centuries of flare-ups across the continent. The first wave, though, was the most terrifying, spreading to nearly every corner of Europe, killing tens of millions, and forcing you to read The Decameron.
Cocoliztli, 1545-1548; 1576
Number dead: 7-17 million
As though Europeans didn’t do enough to destroy indigenous populations in the Americas, a viral hemorrhagic fever called “cocoliztli” (the Nahuatl word for “pestilence”) absolutely ripped through the Mexican population twice. The first time, from 1545 to 1548, it killed between 5 and 15 million people, which accounted for about 80% of the total native population; cocoliztli’s return 30 years later was tame by comparison, killing 2 to 2.5 million, or about 50% of those who remained.
First cholera pandemic, 1817-1824
Where: Asia, East Africa, Mediterranean Coast
Number dead: Unknown; hundreds of thousands
As the British Army consolidated its grip on India, cholera, which was endemic to the subcontinent, began spreading over routes used by imperial troops. This outbreak of the disease eventually made its way across Asia, into the Mediterranean and East Africa. Its toll was particularly fierce; while no total death toll can be determined, cholera killed approximately 125,000 people in one year on the island of Java.
Third cholera pandemic, 1852-1860
Where: Europe, Asia
Number dead: More than 1 million
Generally considered the worst of cholera’s seven pandemics, some positives actually came out of this outbreak. The good news: British physician John Snow discovered that contaminated water was spreading cholera. The bad news: Four more cholera pandemics came after this one. Win some, lose some!
Russian Flu, 1889-1890
Number dead: More than 1 million
This flu pandemic is notable not just for its massive death toll, but also for the fact that it’s the first pandemic to afflict a modern, hyperconnected world, making its way around the globe in just four months. Our little epidemics are finally growing up!
Number dead: 30-50 million
Holy shit, everybody died of the flu. World War I killed so many people that it fundamentally changed humanity’s concept of what it means to be alive and what it means to die. It killed so many people that everyone on Downton Abbey knew someone who died. The flu pandemic that followed killed even more, thanks in large part to advances in travel and troop movement toward the end of the war. This was such a bad flu.
Number dead: 36 million and counting
While AIDS probably got going in 1920s Kinshasa, it began gathering steam in the ‘60s and ‘70s before bursting into a full-blown crisis in the ‘80s. With help from some bias against homosexuality, HIV/AIDS became the defining disease of a postmodern global society.
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Anthony Schneck is the health editor at Thrillist and is going to get a flu shot this year. Follow him @AnthonySchneck.