Contagion Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics

About the Exhibit

The Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics exhibit was originally created and hosted by Harvard Library’s Open Collections Program (OCP) in 2008. After the OCP site was decommissioned in 2018, the collection was migrated to this CURIOSity site. The text below, and the narrative content throughout this site, was later migrated from the original exhibit (with minor edits and updates). For more information on the migration process, please see the Exhibit Migration (2020) page.


This online collection offers important historical perspectives on the science and public policy of epidemiology today and contributes to the understanding of the global, social–history, and public–policy implications of diseases.

Contagion is a digital library collection that brings a unique set of resources from Harvard’s libraries to Internet users everywhere. Offering valuable insights to students of the history of medicine and to researchers seeking an historical context for current epidemiology, the collection contributes to the understanding of the global, social–history, and public–policy implications of disease. Contagion is also a unique social–history resource for students of many ages and disciplines.

Created by the Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program with vital support from Arcadia, the collection provides general background information on diseases and epidemics worldwide, and is organized around significant “episodes” of contagious disease.

These materials include digitized copies of books, serials, pamphlets, incunabula, and manuscripts—a total of more than 500,000 pages—many of which contain visual materials, such as:

  • Plates
  • Engravings
  • Maps
  • Charts
  • Broadsides
  • Illustrations

The collection also includes three unique sets of visual materials from the Center for the History of Medicine in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, at Harvard Medical School:

  • Lantern Slides of the Manchurian Pneumonic Plague, 1910-1911
  • Medical Satiric Prints, 18th and 19th Century
  • 19th Century Views of Hospitals

Library materials and archival materials are supplemented by explanatory pages that introduce concepts related to diseases and epidemics, historical approaches to medicine, and notable men and women.

The Harvard University Library established the Open Collections Program in 2002, with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The program received subsequent support from Arcadia, and, more recently, from Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud.