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Research Guides

Epidemics in history, literature, and art

Guide to secondary and primary literature relating to epidemics and their impact on history, literature, and art.




This research guide contains updated links to e-books and other electronic resources from the section, Epidemics Diseases and their Effect on History on the Oxford Bibliographies Online platform (OBO). Due to the COVID 19 crisis we are unable to add the links to the references within the OBO. Please go to the section within the OBO to read the scholarly introduction and annotations.

In addition to updated links to digital versions of references in the OBO we have also added references to books and other sources published since 2013. We have references to subject areas not in the OBO chapter, including references on epidemics and literature, literary criticism, and art history as well as the SARS, Ebola, and Zika epidemics. Annotations are provided; this is simply a selection of resources we could find in our collection. References to primary sources are also included. As with the OBO bibliography above, we are currently purchasing e-book versions of those which we have in print only. The links to these will be changed as the e-books arrive.

If you would like to add relevant sources to these bibliographies, suggest new topics, or if you have questions about the digital status of any of the titles, please email: Agatha Barc (Reader Services and Instruction Librarian, Victoria University Library--the editor of historical primary sources); Dan D’Agostino (Selector for Social Sciences), Margaret English (Liaison Librarian for Art), Margaret Fulford (Liaison Librarian for Canadian Studies), Ksenya Kiebuzinski (Liaison Librarian for Comparative Literature), or Benjamin Walsh (User Services Librarian).



The study of epidemics help us understand politics, socio-economic structures, and personal relationships. Their outbreaks span across centuries and continents. From the earliest times to the present, epidemics have affected human history in myriad ways: demographically, culturally, politically, financially, and biologically. The earliest plague epidemics raised questions about human’s relations to God. Yellow fever led to the success of the Haitian revolution. Epidemics of cholera exposed how the industrial revolution created conditions for contagion to spread among workers and the poor. The global influenza epidemic of 1918-1920 led to an outpouring of altruism and self sacrifice.

What follows is a bibliography covering the topics that have received the most attention from historians: plague, cholera, influenza, smallpox, among others. Likewise, certain topics—the impact of epidemic disease on indigenous peoples and the effects of colonialism, for instance—have a well-developed historiography and relevant works are also referenced.

General overviews

General overviews

These introductions to the history of epidemics and their effects on history take either a global historical (epidemic disease) or topical approach (e.g. HIV/AIDS).

Reference works

Reference works

Several comprehensive reference works cover epidemics in world history and other topics not referenced elsewhere in this guide. Additionally, they provide excellent bibliographies.



The history of epidemics appeals to both specialists and generalists and is thus not confined to any one journal or type of journal. That said, there are a good number of journals devoted to the history of science and medicine. The following titles regularly cover epidemics and epidemic history.


First pandemic, Secondary sources

First pandemic, Primary sources

Second pandemic, Secondary sources

Second pandemic, Primary sources

Third pandemic, Secondary sources

Third pandemic, Primary sources


Smallpox, Secondary sources

Smallpox, Primary sources

Yellow fever and malaria

Yellow fever and malaria, Secondary sources

Yellow fever and malaria, Primary sources


Cholera, Secondary sources

Cholera, Primary sources


Typhus, Secondary Sources

Typhus, Primary Sources


Tuberculosis, Secondary Sources

Tuberculosis, Primary Sources


Influenza, Secondary sources

Influenza, Primary sources

Colonialism and epidemics

Colonialism and epidemics


Indigenous Peoples and epidemics

Indigenous Peoples and epidemics



HIV/AIDS, Secondary sources

HIV/AIDS, Primary sources

Colin Deinhardt (Reader Services and Instruction Librarian, Victoria University Library) provided the links to the primary source collections listed in this section.


SARS, Secondary sources

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory disease of zoonotic origin that surfaced in the early 2000s in southeastern China and caused a worldwide outbreak in 2002-2004. Several thousand people in twenty-six countries contracted the virus, leading to nearly 800 deaths. Canada was among the top five hardest hit countries, with Toronto experiencing a  particularly severe outbreak.

SARS, Primary sources


Ebola, Secondary sources

The Ebola virus disease (EVD) first emerged in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. No further outbreaks were detected until 2014, when the virus spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone and Liberia, and to seven more countries (Italy, Mali, Nigeria, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States)resulting in 28,000 cases and over 11,000 deaths. Since then, there have been periodic outbreaks.

Ebola, Primary sources


Zika, Secondary sources

Zika, a mosquito-borne flavivirus, was first identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. The first recorded outbreak of Zika virus disease was reported from the Island of Yap (Federated States of Micronesia) in 2007. This was followed by a large outbreak of Zika virus infection in French Polynesia in 2013 and other countries and territories in the Pacific. In 2015, Brazil reported a large outbreak of the infection. Evidence of transmission soon appeared throughout the Americas, Africa, and other regions of the world. To date, a total of 86 countries and territories have reported evidence of mosquito-transmitted Zika infection. 

Zika, Primary sources


COVID-19, Secondary Sources

First identified in late 2019 in Hubei, China, COVID-19 is a novel infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the disease, which has spread across all continents, a pandemic on March 11, 2020.

COVID-19, Primary Sources

COVID-19 Experiences in Urban and Rural Ontario: Online Exhibitions 

Public librarians and archivists across the province are collecting and curating photographs, personal stories, artifacts, videos of recorded Zoom meetings, newspaper articles and other primary sources that reflect the impact of the pandemic in their local communities. Illustrative examples include:   



Explorations of lethal infectious diseases are a part of a long literary tradition. Pandemic-themed fiction invites readers to reflect on human behavior and vulnerability, and to examine our responses to the fear of contagion. These anxieties raise ethical concerns when fear causes moral impoverishment, resulting in the rise of greed, corruption, irrationality, and selfishness. At a broader scale, the dehumanizing aspects of epidemics can lead to political anarchy and social disintegration. Literature offers us an opportunity to reflect on morality, justice, and redemption, and to rethink societal structures.

Literary criticism

Literary criticism

Fiction, International

Fiction, International

Fiction, Canadian

Fiction, Canadian