How Old Is Epidemiology?

When you think of the earliest epidemiologists – as I’m sure you do on a daily basis since I can’t be the only one with that obsession – you probably think of John Snow. Doctor Snow is credited with stopping a severe outbreak of cholera in London by figuring out the who, when, and where of the outbreak. He also used the earliest for of GIS (geographic information system) to figure out that one water pump was causing most of the cases of cholera. He is the hero of many an Epi.

But he wasn’t the first Epi, was he?

Early humans were not much for encountering other humans and sharing germs because, well, there weren’t that many of us. We didn’t get to meet each other, shake each other’s hands, maybe have some sex, and exchange anything from viruses and bacteria to fungi and other parasites. But then we started to grow in numbers and migrate. Little by little, we decided that it was a good idea to get together in a family unit, then get families together in villages. Those villages grew and became towns. Trade and other forms of business lured people from one village to the other, creating cities.

With all those advances came the rape and pillage sharing of bugs. Those bugs would bring on diseases. In some cases, entire cities were laid to waste by epidemics. In other cases, the entire nation state (a collection of like-minded cities) was conquered. Just ask the Native Americans how smallpox worked out for them. However, not all of us humans are insensitive asses out to make a buck. Some of us care about our fellow man. We longed to heal those who were sick, understand the disease, and then keep it from ever happening again.

Let’s focus on those who wanted to understand and stop disease. (The physicians can have the healing.) Who was the first person to notice that keeping a ship docked for 40 days decreased the chances of the sailors to be infected and bring the disease into the port? Who was the first one to take scabs from people with smallpox, grind them up, and have non-immune people snort them as a form of vaccination? And who ordered villages to be closed from the rest of the world for a determined amount of time as a form of isolation?

Well, there really wasn’t one person.

See, humans are set up to look for and understand patterns. That’s why we love puzzles. Some of us love them more than others, of course. And – much to our detriment – others look at patterns and find the wrong associations. Well, it took those pattern-readers who were right and a lot of luck to be able to stop one epidemic after another. I mean, think about it. We didn’t have the wonderful toys great technology we have now. Even now, we get our collective butts handed to us by bugs. Can you imagine a thousand or three thousand years ago?

We’ve been around for probably as long as humans have been around. We’re the ones that have seen the patterns of disease and done our best to understand diseases and keep them at bay, sometimes to our own detriment. Sure, we’ve not always used science, and we’ve been often wrong. But we’ve been around… We’re always around.