The cinchona tree is the only known natural source of quinine. Its medicinal properties were discovered by the Quechua Indians of Peru and Bolivia, and later the Jesuits brought it back to Europe. It first appeared in therapeutics in the seventeenth century.
At a time when the Wuhan coronavirus is poised to spread across the world and potentially create a pandemic of the same, if not greater size, as the Spanish Flu. We have decided to publish chapter nine of Breaking the Code of History, in five Murrinations, to be sent out over the next five days.
- The Disease Cycle of Empire
- Diseases of Expansion of Empire - Part 1
- Diseases of Expansion of Empire - Part 2
- Diseases of Contraction of Empire
- Diseases of the Future
At a point when the world is watching, real time, at an event that will go down in history, this chapter will help you understand how diseases have affected previous empires and how it could effect the Chinese empire of today.
The Disease Cycle of Empire
Man’s greatest war has been fought against disease. We have engaged in protracted battles against bacteria, viruses and other disease vectors, such as fleas, lice and mosquitoes. The history of this war can be traced to the successful expansion of the human population over the past two millennia, and through the cycles of empire (see Figure 48).
Disease and the cycles of empire are inextricably linked: the rate of death by disease compared with the birth rate gives us the demographic curve of an empire. Consequently, epidemics during the ascent to empire phase, a period of rapid population growth, have a lesser effect than an epidemic that strikes a declining empire, where a falling population cannot compensate for the ravages of disease. Modern-day Russia is an example of a population, already in decline, in which the ambient disease process in this case of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)/tuberculosis (TB) has played a significant role.
A smallpox vaccination kit from the nineteenth-century, containing small blades used to pierce the patient’s skin. Edward Jenner (1749–1823), a country doctor, developed the inoculation against the killer disease
The emergence of disease has gone hand in hand with man’s social evolution. The shift from tribes of hunter-gatherers to settled agricultural societies led to the integration of domestic and farm animals into human communities, with a concomitant merging of the disease pool. There are a number of diseases able to jump the species barrier – avian flu, swine flu and AIDS being the most notorious present-day examples.
Over 4,000 years ago, the population concentrations of the riverine civilisations created the ideal conditions for human-to-human disease transmission, giving life to new strains of bacteria and viruses. In addition, parasites integrated their life cycle with that of humans so that, for example, there was an increase in the incidence of water-borne schistosomiasis (bilharzia) in the irrigated fields of the Nile as well as common intestinal parasites (e.g. tapeworms). As urbanisation concentrated the human population to unprecedented densities, human-to-human transmission of disease accelerated. Towns and cities brought with them major challenges in social hygiene that took many centuries to understand. Diseases were also exported along trade routes with catastrophic consequences. The decimation of the Native American population of what is now the US and Canada and the Aboriginal population of Australia by smallpox and measles are but two examples. As the world moves towards a globally integrated population, ironically, it is disease reservoirs in the developing world that could now threaten the world’s wider population, if not properly contained.
There are four distinct types of disease: bacterial, parasitic, viral and lifestyle. In the past 200 years, medical science has made significant progress in the war against bacteria and parasites, which has enabled the acceleration of population growth. Foremost in the process were three key pharmaceutical discoveries: quinine, the smallpox vaccine and penicillin. However, our initial successes are now being challenged as diseases adapt and fight back, resulting in many new drug-resistant disease strains.
The living conditions of the most socially disadvantaged (underfed, overcrowded, unsanitary) provide the ideal conditions for the spread of disease. Stress or shock to the social system can cause a local outbreak to overflow into the wider population, creating epidemics. There are degrees to this process, but it is clear that a society is only as strong as its weakest link, which should be sufficient incentive for governments to endeavour to eradicate both poverty and the diseases it shelters.
Viruses continue to represent a major threat to society through epidemics, so they are the focus of considerable modern scientific research. The unravelling of the DNA code is a significant breakthrough that promises to help in our ongoing struggle against the genetic aspect of disease.
Sir Alexander Fleming (1881–1955) was most famous for his discovery of the antibiotic powers of penicillin in 1928, for which he shared the 1945 Nobel Prize for Medicine with the two chemists who perfected a method of producing the drug
Endemic and Opportunistic Diseases
When looking at the cycle of population growth and demise, we can classify diseases and their effects on an empire as being either endemic or opportunistic (see Figure 49). Endemic diseases, such as malaria and typhus, have historically acted continually on the population to limit or reduce its growth. Advances in medical knowledge and improvements in urban health (at least in the WCSE) have had the effect of rolling them back. However, opportunistic diseases, such as bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera and influenza, take advantage of the population density of urbanisation coupled with social stresses, such as famine, conflict and reduced economic coherence, and these have not proved so easy to counter.
On a collective level, there is likely to be improved longevity and resilience in the population of a growing empire as it gains more control over its environment and achieves greater economic power. Conversely, there is likely to be a weakened collective immune system in periods of heightened social stress during the decline of an empire. If, as has been argued, the cycle of an empire is akin to that of an individual who suffers the diseases of youth, middle age and old age, then an empire also has to engage with diseases of its ascendancy and expansion, and its decline and contraction.
Part 2 Diseases of Expansion Empire follows tomorrow. Subscribe now to receive this direct to your inbox.
We must identify the theories that underlie historical cycles, learn the lessons and apply them to today’s changing world. Studying the ebb and flow of empires throughout history, in particular, can enable us to pinpoint the mechanisms that cause civilisations to rise and fall. Read about the book, an introduction to BTCH, feedback or purchase the book direct.