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Historical geography of war and disease

Down the ages, war epidemics have decimated the fighting strength of armies, caused the suspension and cancellation of military operations, and have brought havoc to the civil populations of belligerent and non-belligerent states alike.

This project examines the historical occurrence and geographical spread of infectious diseases in association with past wars. It addresses an intrinsically geographical question: how are the spatial dynamics of epidemics influenced by military operations and the directives of war? The primary thrusts of the project are to combine qualitative analyses of archival source materials over a 150-year time period from 1850 with quantitative analyses less frequently associated with historical studies.

So far, work has been undertaken on four main strands:

  1. War and Disease, surveying the early history of the war-disease association from early times to the brink of the statistical recording period, c.1850.
  2. Temporal Trends in the association of war and disease. This focuses upon a longitudinal time-based analysis of infectious disease activity in three different war-afflicted populations: civilians, military, and the war-displaced.
  3. Regional Patterns of War Epidemics. Here, a number of repeating themes linking war and epidemic diseases are being examined by world regions – military mobilization in Pan America, camp epidemics in Europe, emerging and re-emerging diseases in Asia and the Far East, sexually transmitted diseases in Africa, and war-driven island epidemics in Oceania. The work is also examining disease incidence and propagation in concentration camps, among forced labour, and in civil populations.
  4. Future Trends, studying especially biological warfare and control strategies.

A number of broad conclusions have been reached:

  1. Disease resulted in more deaths than battle in all conflicts until the 1930s.
  2. Infectious diseases are opportunistic and exploit the niches left by conflict-induced collapses in nutrition, hygiene and population movements.
  3. Soldiers fighting in epidemiologically new theatres of war experience especially high mortality.
  4. Concentration and refugee camps are prone to major epidemics.
  5. War is an obstacle to disease eradication.

Illustrative picture


Much of the work is summarised in: Smallman-Raynor, M.R., Cliff A.D., (2004) War Epidemics: An Historical Geography of Infectious Diseases in Military Conflict and Civil Strife. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 805pp