I’ll have a review up tomorrow of a new ASM press book, Twelve Diseases that Changed Our World. However, I’m interested first in what readers would nominate as the most important diseases in history. Sure, some are “gimmies,” but the author, Irwin Sherman, makes a few choices I’d not have considered. What would you include on your list?


  1. #1 Ian
    September 26, 2007

    Then top ten gimmies, I think (I won’t try to rank them; this is in the order they occured to me):
    -The Black Plague (presumably Yersinia pestis — I haven’t followed the literature enough to know if the questions as to etiology are plausible) — wiped out much of civilization
    -Tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis and its relatives): Has directed the evolution of our immune system
    -Leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae) — ditto
    -AIDS (HIV)
    -Smallpox (variola virus)
    -Cowpox. “Significant” not because of its destructive capacity, of course, but because of its role in driving vaccination
    -Cholera (Vibrio cholerae)
    -Pneumonia from many causes (the question is diseases rather than infectious agents, right?)
    -Measles virus — for its role in the decimation of the New World, as well as its burden on children today

  2. #2 Ahcuah
    September 26, 2007

    Need to add malaria as another one directing our evolution.

  3. #3 Christophe Thill
    September 26, 2007

    From the point of view of art and literature, I tend to think that romantism wouldn’t have been the same without tuberculosis. And the Decadent movement would definitely have looked weaker if it hadn’t been haunted by the spectre of syphilis. And let’s not forget the impact of AIDS on the culture of late 20th century.

  4. #4 apy
    September 26, 2007

    I don’t have 10 but I would put cholera very high on the list purely by reading Ghost Maps. Definitive ingestigation showing the miasma theory to not fit the evidence, I think, was one of the most important discoveries, on top of that I think the book makes a good argument for this change allowing cities to prosper as they do today.

    I’m not sure if I would put something like MRSA or VRE in there now or in 50 years, it seems like they haven’t shaped our world too much but unless my understanding of the situation is completely over hyped it might lead to a change in how doctors handle treatment of many diseases.

  5. #5 carolyn13
    September 26, 2007

    The Black Plague
    Typhus and typhiod fever
    Cholera and other forms of dysentery

  6. #6 Lorax
    September 26, 2007

    Most significant diseases historically

    Yersinia pestis for its affect on the Western world
    Smallpox for its affect in North America (smallpox also gets historical significance as being the first vaccine target)
    Influenza for its affects worldwide
    Malaria for its affects worldwide

    So what about Mideast and Far east history? I would be interested in learning how infectious diseases impacted the history (pre-1800) of the non-Western world.

  7. #7 blf
    September 26, 2007

    “Life.” — Planet Earth, scratching itself again. “These damn critters are making me itch. They crap all over me and into my ponds and oceans and air. I’m sick and running a nasty fever. All due to life. Horrible, nasty disease. Don’t catch it.”

  8. #8 Matt Penfold
    September 26, 2007

    I would nominate Malaria as being extremely significant. The presence of Malaria had a huge impact on European colonisation of the rest of the world.

  9. #9 D. Loy
    September 26, 2007

    I’m suprised no one mentioned the pneumococci. This was and continues to be probably the one of the most deadly and costly diseases in the world, is the leading cause of meningitis, and when combined with influenza is terrible. Next to smallpox i’m not sure if there’s anything that compares. Plus it was the foundation for Griffith’s transformation experiment and Avery’s subsequent discovery of DNA as the factor that made the transformation work.

  10. #10 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 26, 2007


  11. #11 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 26, 2007


  12. #12 Sock Puppet of the Great Satan
    September 26, 2007

    “However, I’m interested first in what readers would nominate as the most important diseases in history. ”

    I’d discount weighting diseases that killed a particular historic individual (like, say, Henry VIII’s elder brother Arthur), ‘cos we can’t predict what the counterfactual would be if that individual had lived. So let’s weight them just on social impact.

    Yersinia pestis (Justinian and 14th Century plagues – without the Justinian plague Byzantium might have reconquered the former Roman Empire.)

    After that Smallpox.

    The impact of other diseases seem to me to be orders of magnitude lower, but let’s try (as we’re not just talking infectious disease here):

    Measles (for how it affected the New World)
    Malaria (for slowing development of the tropics and subtropics)
    Scurvy (led to a better understanding of nutrition and the discovery of vitamins)
    Anthrax (first disease bacterium isolated and cultured)
    Yellow Fever (for advancing understanding of disease vectors)
    Cholera (again, for effect in developing germ theory of disease)

    Also would want to consider crop diseases like Ergot (or Potato blight (caused the Irish diaspora). Not familiar enough with the histories of great famines to know how strong a role crop diseases played.

  13. #13 chezjake
    September 26, 2007

    There could be significant debate on this, depending on whether one is talking about diseases that changed human culture or history or whether one is considering the overall impact of the morbidity/mortality caused by a disease. I’m making the (drastic?) assumption that here at Aetiology we’re talking about infectious diseases.

    Here are my nominees for the 12 most significant infectious diseases from the morbidity/mortality point of view:

    Typhus, both epidemic and murine
    Pneumonia (all causes)
    Salmomella infections, including typhoid fever
    The Common Cold and similar respiratory viruses

  14. #14 VJB
    September 26, 2007

    You’ll be hearing from my lawyers, from the firm Yersinia, Salmonella, Rickettsia, and Variola, LLC. BTW, my dentists are Hacker, Pullman, and Yankovitch, PC.

  15. #15 Tara C. Smith
    September 26, 2007

    Interesting. You’ve collectively hit on 10 out of the 12 that Sherman included, but you’re still missing two (and they’re 2 I’d not have considered either). There’s one other that I wouldn’t have thought of, but one of you picked that one up already.

  16. #16 carolyn13
    September 26, 2007

    The missing two?

  17. #17 Jorge Gajardo Rojas
    September 26, 2007

    Black pest

  18. #18 Maria
    September 26, 2007

    What about trichinosis and other worm infections? Do these count as diseases? They are certainly of concern in Africa.

  19. #19 Maria
    September 26, 2007

    uhmmm, the Africa comment was meant for worms in general, not trichinosis….

  20. #20 Alan Kellogg
    September 26, 2007

    The Common Cold.

    Ask yourselves this, how much productivity has been lost over the course of human history because of colds? How much more might we have done with that productivity?

  21. #21 Nat
    September 26, 2007

    I’ll pipe up for the non-infectious diseases since nobody has mentioned them (except some mentioning the cancers).

    I’d agree with black plague, malaria, TB, measles, influenza, smallpox, typhoid and possibly cholera being on the list.

    I disagree with HIV because it han’t YET been a significant disease in history (defined as the time since the written language was invented and history could be recorded).
    I’m not sure syphilis had a large enough impact over enough time to make a top ten list.
    Cholera is a maybe as it tends to be found in dense populations which are relatively new in human history.

    Cardiovascular disease/s hasn’t been mentioned by anyone yet. It’s still the biggest killer in the developed world and with the rapid modernisation of China and India I would guess it will become the biggest killer worldwide. So maybe not the biggest impact in human history yet- but it probably will be assuming we still retain relatively good control over the infectious diseases.

    The second non-infectious disease I would add in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD or CORD). This is usually found in heavy smokers these days but thinking back to the pre modern periods the inhalation of smoke from cooking and heating fires in poorly ventilated housing must also have caused substantial COPD in many people.

  22. #22 ergie
    September 26, 2007

    How about hypercolesterol, obesity or any of the diseases that emerge later in life, now that we live long, like Alzhimers or osteoporesis?

    Someone mentioned the black plague, I’m still interested in a follow-up post to the notion of black-plague-as-virus. (its how you got me hooked!)

  23. #23 Tara C. Smith
    September 26, 2007

    Ha! Wow, I can’t believe you remember that. I was just thinking I need to do that–I’m discussing it in the molecular epidemiology course I teach in a few weeks, so I’ll try to get back on that…

  24. #24 Nat
    September 26, 2007


    COPD is the 4th leading cause of death in the world currently. The answer was in my inbox all along…


  25. #25 Alexis
    September 26, 2007

    In no particular order:

    Rotavirus (and associated childhood GI illnesses)
    Yellow Fever

  26. #26 cooler
    September 26, 2007

    no doubt mycoplasma incognitus, discovered by a brilliant scientist named DR. shyh ching lo md phd, the Army’s highest ranking scientist Every animal he injected it with died, mice/primates.

    The animals only had a weak antibody response when near death, so the PCR is the only relaible way to find this microbe.

    Its being found in many cases of CFS/RA/AIDS/GWI/ALS and not in healthy controls, garth nicolson phd is finding it by PCR in these sick people.

    Many scientists were very impressed with LO’s work and it was on the cover of the New York Times, after all he’s one a the very few scientists since koch to disocver a microbe that induced disease in every animal injected, although world renoun scientists like montagnier and Tully knew that this novel strain of mycoplasma was a threat to humanity Fauci sabotaged it for political reasons, causing genocide.

    In order for a microbe to be taken seriously a drug company or a political hack like Fauci has to support it, forget about kochs postulates ot animal models, thats how pathetic the scientific establishment has become.

    He is so stupid, hepatitis C, hiv does not induce any kind of disease in 99% of animals.

    Read Project Day Lily to find out how it was part of the biological weapons program, which is one of the reasons you have not heard of it. Amazing book, events are true, slightly fictionilized, google it and read a chapter for free.

    see hiv fact or fraud to see the an eyepoening movie free. google it.

  27. #27 chezjake
    September 26, 2007

    Interesting coincidence — the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine has reviews of *three* new books on various historical aspects of plague.

  28. #28 Zoo Knudsen
    September 26, 2007

    According to my sources, erectile disfunction is high on the list, as is acid reflux. This is clearly evident in the number of television commercial time spent to educating the world on ways to treat them.

  29. #29 DDeden
    September 27, 2007

    Disease: Death
    Cure: Life (reproducible results)

  30. #30 Ed Yong
    September 27, 2007

    I nominate Toxoplasma infection. Not quite a disease, but probably important…

  31. #31 rog
    September 30, 2007

    Deceptively simple micro-organisms and bacterium such as tuberculosis continue to challenge and defy modern science, along with Influenza the threat of a lethal disease that is airborn seems too hard to contemplate.

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