COVID-19: History of Science Goes Viral

Blog by Ruben Verwaal

On 27 March 2020, the UvA professor Claes de Vreese launched the “Social Science and Humanities & COVID-19 portal”. His aim was to showcase the expertise of academics working on health communication, trade and economic consequences, privacy and contract law, and numerous other useful topics. Surprisingly, scholars in the history of science and medicine were absent. 

So is history not useful? Does the history of epidemics – including past mistakes – not show us how we can cope with COVID-19 today?

Since the outbreak, many of our members have applied their expertise to write about epidemics in history, from medical treatments to political responses. This special newsletter brings together their contributions.

We can identify three major themes:

  1. Parallels: all contributors see striking similarities between COVID-19 and earlier epidemics, including respiratory illness, smallpox, cholera and the 1918 influenza. Without simplifying past realities, they demonstrate how our reactions to the current crisis are rooted in tradition. 
  2. Lessons: Analysing ‘social distancing’ campaigns from the past, Knoeff argues it is more helpful to learn from mistakes than from successes. Parry lists ten lessons, inviting us to keep a broad and critical perspective on the intersections between public health, politics, and the media.
  3. Science and Culture: Finally, even in twenty-first century science and medicine, cultural differences have an impact on public health measurements. The differences in lockdown policies between Belgium and The Netherlands are a case in point. The ways in which we cope with COVID-19, in short, are as much about science as they are about culture.

We hope you’ll enjoy the blogs presented here. And if you’re wondering, the SSH & COVID-19 Portal has recently been updated with the theme “historical perspective”. Apparently we can learn something from the past.


Marieke Hendriksen, NL-Lab

Een korte geschiedenis van epidemische luchtwegaandoeningen / A short history of respiratory illness epidemics

Nadat premier Rutte op 13 en 15 maart vergaande maatregelen afkondigde om de covid-19 epidemie beter te kunnen beheersen, stelden meerdere mensen mij als medisch historicus de vraag ‘hoe we dat dan vroeger deden’. Waarmee men bedoelde: hoe gingen mensen, in Nederland en daarbuiten, in het verleden om met epidemieën van luchtweginfecties? …Verder lezen

The Netherlands are in lockdown to curb the covid-19 epidemic since prime minister Mark Rutte announced social distancing rules on 13 and 15 March. Since that time, various people have asked me, as a medical historian, ‘how we handled this kind of thing in the past’. …Continue reading


Ad Maas, Rijksmuseum Boerhaave

Hoe cholera ons naar experts leerde luisteren

‘Maar het antwoord op alle vragen die leven, begint bij de kennis en ervaring van deskundigen. Laat ons daaraan vasthouden.’ Deze uitspraak vormde de kern van de toespraak die premier Mark Rutte tot het Nederlandse volk richtte over de coronacrisis: we moeten ons vastklampen aan de mensen van het RIVM en andere deskundigen. … Verder lezen


Joris Vandendriessche, Cultuurgeschiedenis.be

Cholera, corona en de kracht van cijfers

Tijdens deze weken van coronaquarantaine schrijven we samen geschiedenis. We dijken de epidemie in met een ongekende beperking van onze vrijheid. We ervaren angsten en onzekerheden die ook voor onze groot- en overgrootouders ‘nieuw’ zijn. Zelfs de oudsten onder hen hebben immers geen herinneringen aan de Spaanse griep in 1918 – een pandemie die tot voor kort als een eindpunt gold van een tijdperk van epidemieën in Europa. Sinds die tijd is onze kennis over de verspreiding van infectieziekten enorm toegenomen. Toch vertoont onze omgang met de coronaepidemie vandaag heel wat parallellen met de manier waarop epidemieën in het verleden werden voorgesteld en beheerst. …Verder lezen


Manon Parry, Pulse Network

Learning from the (Recent) Past

The Medical and Health Humanities have a lot to teach us about how to respond to COVID-19. …

Continue reading


Rina Knoeff, Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health

Covid-19 en de behoefte aan betere historische lessen / Covid-19 and the need for better historical lessons

De medische geschiedenis was nog nooit zo populair. Elke dag worden we overspoeld met artikelen in kranten, blogs en tweets, die de Covid-19-crisis vergelijken met historische epidemieën zoals de middeleeuwse pest, de Spaanse griep, hiv/aids of SARS. Onveranderlijk is de vraag welke historische lessen we kunnen trekken uit het verleden. … Verder lezen

Medical history was never more popular. Every day we are flooded with articles in newspapers, blogs and tweets, drawing parallels between the Covid-19 crisis and historical epidemics such as the medieval plague, the Spanish Flu, HIV/AIDS or SARS. Invariably, the question is what historical lessons can be learned for today’s pandemic. … Continue reading


Floor Haalboom, Studium

‘Spanish’ flu and army horses

At the time of the 1918–1919 ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic, influenza researchers did not just relate this disease to the human population, despite the focus of historians of medicine on its human aspects and meanings. In line with the use of historical reports of animals with influenza in present-day microbiological studies on influenza among different animal species, this article investigates understandings of animal influenza in the Netherlands during the 1918–1919 pandemic. The article adds to microbiological uses of the historical record by putting observations of animals with influenza in historical contexts, in particular the context of military dealings with influenza at the end of the First World War, and the social position of veterinary medicine. The case of the Dutch military horse veterinarian Emile Bemelmans, who argued that human and horse influenza were identical, illustrates that knowledge of these contexts is important to critically use historical sources reporting animals with influenza in present-day biological influenza research.

Follow this link to read Floor Haalboom’s article: ‘Spanish’ flu and army horses: what historians and biologists can learn from a history of animals with flu during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemicStudium, 7(3), pp.124–139.


Abel Streefland, Delta

De TU ging al eens eerder dicht vanwege een pandemie / TU Delft has closed before because of a pandemic

Meer dan honderd jaar geleden, in 1918, was de TU Delft al een keer dicht door de uitbraak van een pandemie. Universiteitshistoricus Abel Streefland vertelt erover. … Verder lezen

This is not the first time that TU Delft has closed because of an epidemic. It also happened in 1918. TU Delft historian Abel Streefland tells the story. … Continue reading


If there are more blogs we can add here, please let us know! Or if you want to join the conversation, please leave a message below. We’re curious what you think!

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