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Cholera Epidemics in the 19th Century

The Great Plague of London, 1665

The Boston Smallpox Epidemic, 1721

“Pestilence” and the Printed Books of the Late 15th Century

Spanish Influenza in North America, 1918–1919

Syphilis, 1494–1923

Tropical Diseases and the Construction of the Panama Canal, 1904–1914

Tuberculosis in Europe and North America, 1800–1922

The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793

General Materials

Notable People

Related Links


Medical Geography

Dr. Berghaus’ Physikalischer Atlas, Gotha: J. Perthes, 1852. From the holdings of Harvard Map Collection/Social Sciences Program, Harvard College Library
Dr. Berghaus’ Physikalischer Atlas. From the holdings of Harvard Map Collection/Social Sciences Program—Harvard College Library.

Medical geography, a subdiscipline of geography, is an interdisciplinary and holistic study of health, illness, and disease by specialists from a wide variety of social, physical, and biological sciences. Working in different cultural systems and diverse biospheres, medical geographers examine the distribution of health-related phenomena over time and the ways in which these phenomena interact and determine the status of human health in a community.


Medical geographers credit the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates and his followers as the founders of medical geography. In his early treatise Airs, Waters, and Places, Hippocrates proposed that a person’s environment could adversely influence health or well-being by altering the equilibrium between the four bodily humors.

Medical Geographers in the 18th and 19th Centuries

The Europeans Leonhard Ludwig Finke, August Hirsch, and Caspar Fuchs upheld and continued the Hippocratic holistic tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries by organizing information abut human diseases in different cultures and in different environments.

In North America, Daniel Drake identified the geological, meteorological, and social determinants of disease during the settlement of the American West.

Medical Cartography

Medical cartography developed in Europe in the late 18th century to depict yellow-fever epidemics, and in the 19th-century maps showing cholera outbreaks proliferated as well as the geographical distribution of other diseases. In 1852, Heinrich Berghaus’ Physikalischer Atlas depicted the first maps of the global distribution of diseases.


In the age of European exploration and discovery, climate, topography, and ecology became closely linked to specific chronic and infectious diseases. The massive number of slaves brought to the West Indies by European colonists, for example, engendered yellow fever, just as it did on the North American mainland, where yellow fever became the most feared disease.

European exploration of the American West in the mid-18th century revealed the healing power of air in the Rocky Mountains, which became the treatment of choice for tuberculosis into the early 20th century.

Tropical Medicine and Climate

Hot climates have long been associated with specific tropical diseases such as malaria because the malaria parasite and its host, the Anopheles mosquito, require specific climatic conditions to survive and multiply. Cyclical climatic changes can also lead to epidemic outbreaks: the El Niño in the winter of 1878 turned the normally temperate North American South into a tropical climate and produced the worst yellow-fever epidemic in American history.

Medical Geography: Past and Present

Since its origin as part of the ancient Greek corpus of Hippocratic medicine in the 5th to 4th centuries BCE, medical geography has become an interdisciplinary study of health and disease in diverse cultures, geographic locations, and climates. Medical geography draws on the concepts and methodologies of a wide variety of cognate disciplines to contribute to the understanding of the factors that affect health and disease in different communities.


Selected Contagion Resources

This is a partial list of digitized materials available in Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. For additional materials on the topic “Medical Geography,” click here or search the collection’s Catalog and Full Text databases.

Web Pages

Cholera Epidemics in the 19th Century
Humoral Theory
Tropical Diseases and the Construction of the Panama Canal, 1904–1914
Tuberculosis in Europe and North America, 1800–1922
The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793



Hippocrates. The Genuine Works of Hippocrates. New York: William Wood & Co., [189-?].

Medical Geographers in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Drake, Daniel. A Systematic Treatise, Historical, Etiological, and Practical, on the Principal Diseases of the Interior Valley of North America, as They Appear in the Caucasian, African, Indian, and Esquimaux Varieties of Its Population. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854.

Medical Cartography

An Account of the Rise and Progress of the Indian or Spasmodic Cholera: With a Particular Description of the Symptoms Attending the Disease: Illustrated by a Map, Showing the Route and Progress of the Disease, from Jessore, Near the Ganges, in 1817, to Great Britain, in 1831. New Haven: L.H. Young, 1832.
Berghaus, Heinrich Karl Wilhelm. Dr. Berghaus’ Physikalischer Atlas: Eine, Unter Der Fördernden Anregung Alexander’s von Humboldt 567erfasste: Sammlung von 93 Karten auf Denen die Hauptsächlichsten Erscheinungen der Anorganischen und Organischen Natur Nach Ihrer Geographischen Verbreitung8 und Vertheilung Bildlich Dargestellt Sind. Gotha: J. Perthes, 1852.
Booth, Charles. Descriptive Map of London Poverty/ London: Stanford’s Geogl. Estabt., 1891.
Boyle, James. A Practical Medico-Historical Account of the Western Coast of Africa: Embracing a Topographical Description of Its Shores, Rivers, and Settlements, with Their Seasons and Comparative Healthiness, Together with the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment, of the Fevers of Western Africa, and a Similar Account Respecting the Other Diseases Which Prevail There London: S. Highley, 1831.
Clemow, Frank G. The Geography of Disease. Cambridge : University Press, 1903.


Bryson, Alexander. Report on the Climate and Principal Diseases of the African Station: Compiled from Documents in the Office of the Director–General of the Medical Department, and from Other Sources, in Compliance with the Directions of the Right Honorable the Lords Commissioners of the Admirality. London: W. Clowes and Sons, 1847.
Corbyn, Frederick. A Treatise on the Epidemic Cholera, as It Has Prevailed in India: Together with the Reports of the Medical Officers, Made to the Medical Boards of Bengal, Madras, and Bombay, for the Purpose of Ascertaining a Successful Mode of Treating That Destructive Disease, and, a Critical Examination of All the Works Which Have Hitherto Appeared on the Subject. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Carey, 1832.
Johnson, James. The Influence of Tropical Climates, More Especially the Climate of India, on European Constitutions: The Principal Effects and Diseases Thereby Induced, Their Prevention or Removal, and the Means of Preserving Health in Hot Climates, Rendered Obvious to Europeans of Every Capacity: An Essay. London: 1815.
Lindsay, James Alexander. The Climatic Treatment of Consumption: A Contribution to Medical Climatology. London: Macmillan, 1887.
Nathan, R. The Plague in India, 1896, 1897. Simla: Printed at the Govt. Central Print. Office, 1898.

Tropical Medicine and Climate

Braun, Julius. Die klimatische Behandlung der Lungenschwindsucht. H. Bruhn, 1887.
Davidson, Andrew. Geographical Pathology: An Inquiry into the Geographical Distribution of Infective and Climatic Diseases. Edinburgh: Y.J. Pentland, 1892.
Murray, J. How to Live in Tropical Africa: a Guide to Tropical Hygiene: The Malaria Problem: The Cause, Prevention, and Cure of Malarial Fevers. London: G. Philip, 1895.
Parkin, John. Climate and Phthisis, or, The Influence of Climate in the Production and Prevention of Phthisis. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1875.
Spinzig, C. Epidemic Diseases as Dependant Upon Meteorological Influences. St. Louis, Mo., 1874.


The following sources were used in writing this page.

Arnold, David., ed. Warm Climates and Western Medicine: The Emergence of Tropical Medicine, 1500–1900. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1996.
Cliff, A. D., Peter Haggett, and Matthew Smallman-Raynor. World Atlas of Epidemic Diseases. London: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Crosby, Molly Caldwell. The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History. New York: Berkley Books, 2006.
Koch, Tom. Cartographies of Disease: Maps, Mapping, and Medicine. Redlands, Calif.: ESRI Press, 2005.
Meade, Melinda S. Medical Geography. New York: Guilford Press, 1988.


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