In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Disease in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Textbooks and Surveys
  • Bibliographies
  • Primary Sources
  • The Columbian Exchange
  • Disease and Race
  • Biological Warfare
  • Resilience and Survival

Atlantic History Disease in the Atlantic World
David S. Jones
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0079


The advent of transatlantic exploration, colonization, and trade in the 15th and 16th centuries brought three distinct populations—Europeans, Africans, and Americans—into sustained close contact for the first time. The ensuing encounters transformed the face of the Atlantic World and the Americas. Disease played a central role in every aspect of this history. Europeans initially experienced high mortality in both Africa and the Americas. They had to learn how to adapt both their lives and these new environments. American Indians suffered appalling mortality, especially for the first century after contact. While some populations disappeared most others survived but did not recover to precontact population levels until the 20th century. More than ten million Africans were enslaved and transported to the Americas to work on European plantations. Although mortality remained high throughout two centuries of slavery, the descendants of these Africans form the majority of many American countries and a significant minority of many others. The historiography of disease in the Atlantic World has long focused on the theory of virgin-soil epidemics, which holds that since American Indians had long been separated from Old World populations, they lacked immunity to Old World pathogens and died, inevitably, in great numbers once these pathogens were introduced. Recently, however, this model has been replaced by analyses that reveal the links between biology, environment, and social context. Mortality was a contingent outcome that depended on the specific and local details of the colonial encounter. The toll taken by disease, whatever its intensity, had a substantial impact on the military, economic, political, and social history of the Atlantic World. It also shaped the emergence of scientific theories about race in the 18th and 19th centuries. As a result, the legacies of these diseases of encounter remain very active and visible today.

General Overviews

Although Europeans have been aware of the epidemics and demographic changes triggered by American colonization since the early 1500s, only in the 1970s did the question receive sustained historical scrutiny. Two authors are largely responsible for putting disease on the map: William McNeill, who made a case for the impact of disease on world history (McNeill 1998), and Alfred Crosby, whose article in the William and Mary Quarterly (Crosby 1976) has shaped all subsequent research. Following this turn to biological history, many authors have argued that severe epidemics were an inevitable outcome of the encounter between European, African, and American Indian populations. Diamond 1997, a Pulitzer Prize–winning book, has assured the continued influence of this idea. Starting in the 1990s, however, historians and anthropologists increasingly recognized that disease and depopulation were not monolithic processes. Instead, the severity of epidemics and the outcomes of encounter varied significantly depending on the health status of precontact populations and the social and economic processes of colonization. Many studies, such as Kunitz 1994, Alchon 2003, and Jones 2003, have worked to put these epidemics into broader context, arguing that it was the nature of the encounter and not inherent immunological vulnerabilities that left Indians vulnerable to disease.

  • Alchon, Suzanne Austin. A Pest in the Land: New World Epidemics in a Global Perspective. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

    Situates the experience of American Indians with epidemics into a larger history of outbreaks of new pathogens in Old World populations and argues that there was nothing exceptional about how New World populations responded to infectious disease. Their high mortality should instead be attributed to the combined effects of repeated outbreaks and the burden of European colonialism. Alchon has been criticized for downplaying the remarkably high mortality experienced by American Indians.

  • Crosby, Alfred W. “Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 33 (1976): 289–299.

    DOI: 10.2307/1922166

    Concise and enormously influential article that examines how social, political, and biological processes interacted to bring about the devastation of Indian populations.

  • Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton, 1997.

    Few books that deal with disease and encounter have been more widely read. Although hoping to displace racist theories of history, the book’s geographic and biological determinism attributes the success of Europeans, in part, to their superior immune systems.

  • Jones, David S. “Virgin Soils Revisited.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 60 (2003): 703–742.

    DOI: 10.2307/3491697

    Based on a review of new work in history, anthropology, and immunology, this article critiques the idea that Indians had “no immunity” to European disease. It argues instead that the high mortality of American Indians was caused by a combination of factors, including the marginal and worsening health of many populations before European arrival and the substantial disruption of Indian societies and subsistence that followed European arrival. Indians were not born vulnerable; they were made vulnerable.

  • Kunitz, Stephen J. Disease and Social Diversity: The European Impact on the Health of Non-Europeans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Uses a series of case studies from the histories of Europeans in Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific to demonstrate the impact of social and economic circumstances on the contingent outcomes of European colonialism. Makes a convincing case against simplistic, deterministic theories of history.

  • McNeill, William H. Plagues and Peoples. New York: Anchor, 1998.

    Surveys two thousand years of human history to demonstrate the decisive impact of disease on human societies. The chapter “Transoceanic Exchanges” focuses on the Atlantic basin. Focused on biological history, sometimes to the exclusion of other important factors. Originally published in 1977 (Doubleday).

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