Category Archives: nutrition

Disease and Discrimination in Colonial Atlantic America


Reviewed by Michelle Ziegler

Dale Hutchinson. Disease and Discrimination: Poverty and Pestilence in Colonial Atlantic America. University of Florida Press, 2016. $85

Dale Hutchinson’s latest book fits into a recent trend of a more critical analysis of the role disease played in the demographic collapse of Native Americans in the Colonial period. After spending most of his career working on the Spanish Colonial system in Florida,  in Disease and Discrimination, he discusses the English and French colonies along the Atlantic seaboard.

By his own description, “this book is a series of narratives about changing landscapes of America — not only the natural landscapes, but the social, political and economic landscapes — and how they all contributed to the nutrition and health of natives and newcomers in the Atlantic coastal colonies” (p. 10) He goes on to warn the reader that landscapes he intends to paint are “neither exhaustive nor completely factual representations”; he has “chosen what to accentuate” (p.11).   In painting his landscapes he chose to use an informal, conversational tone that should make it the science easier to understand but also leads to a somewhat rambling style that sometimes lacks structure and yields uneven coverage. Disease and Discrimination is divided into four sections: ‘Of Apples and Edens’,  ‘Natives and Newcomers’, and Planters and Pestilence, and ‘Measuring the Lands’.

In the first section, he discusses landscapes and disease processes.  He opens the second chapter with a nice introduction to disease ecology and terminology but then moves on build off of McNeill’s “civilized disease pools”, which is now quite outdated. This would have been an ideal place to discuss syndemics, but he does not apply syndemic theory anywhere in the book. From here he moves into a rather free flowing discussion of plague pandemics. To be honest, I felt this discussion was out of place in a book that does not otherwise discuss bubonic plague. If he wanted to discuss the Old World origins of New World epidemics, then wouldn’t it have been better to discuss the disease ecology of an organism that made the ‘Columbian exchange’?

Opening with a discussion of syphilis, the next chapter discusses historical epidemiology and then the virgin soil epidemic hypothesis. As he notes, attenuation (weakening over time) is a core principle of the virgin soil hypothesis that lacks pervasive scientific evidence. It is not always in the best interest of a pathogen to become less virulent. Indeed, some times it’s quite the opposite.  Hutchison correctly points out that many of the examples of virgin soil epidemics were more likely to be caused by environmental contingencies like over crowding and poor sanitation on Indian reservations. Consulting David Jones (2003) work on refuting the virgin soil hypothesis would have been helpful here.

In the second section, Hutchinson reviews the European settlement, resource extraction and interactions with the Native tribes. He pays particular attention to the interactions between the French, Dutch and English colonists with the tribes, providing a handy table of seventeenth-century epidemics (table 4.1). It is interesting that all but one of these epidemics are credited to viruses (smallpox, measles, and influenza). Just over half of these epidemics were recorded by the Jesuits working in the French colonies. The 1630s were a particularly bad time for the colonies with measles, smallpox and other poorly recognized diseases impacted both the colonists and the Native American tribes in the Northeast. Hutchinson spends some valuable time discussing the differential impacts of the French and English interests in resource extraction, how that affected the landscape, and how the tribes moved, mixed and formed new entities due to attrition. Despite the reputation of epidemics among native tribes, the Europeans and Africans were ravaged by smallpox and measles as well.  Children born to both Europeans and Africans would have been as immunologically naive as the Native Americans (although variolation would have protected the few who received it from smallpox). Malnutrition affected all three groups but in different circumstances and to different degrees, as did the effects of war. A key difference between natives and newcomers is that more Europeans and Africans could immigrate to bolster their numbers, while Native Americans were still being enslaved or facing hostile encounters.

As the English began to attempt to transform the landscape, to ‘improve’ it, they began to build plantations, essentially recreating English manors in the New World. The New World landscapes did not yield easily and it dragged out long enough to spawn its own pestilence, known by contemporaries as ‘the seasoning’.  Hutchinson discusses the ecological causes including rice farming, deforestation, and diseases clusters (primarily typhoid and malaria).  The ‘seasoning’ is discussed in terms of immunology but it would have been helpful to consider the seasoning as a type of syndemic. In addition to gaining some immunological protection, the mortality rate was often very high in the first few years after arriving on the frontier.  In the Carolinas, rice farming learned from West African slaves quickly went from sustenance to export along with indigo and timber, taken for lumber and pine tar. The radical changes to the Carolina landscape primed it for its own blend of ‘seasoning’ microbes led by malaria.  The production environment of the Carolinas stimulated the import of African slaves who brought more malaria and were vulnerable to infections primed by enslavement conditions.

As the plantation landscape developed beyond the coast the stratification of society became extreme enough to be detected in osteological assessments of their health. Indentured servants and slaves both show evidence of a very hard life with overdeveloped muscle attachments on their bone indicating hard labor and evidence of malnutrition including signs of rickets, scurvy, and protein malnutrition. Corn (maize) replaced European grains, especially for servants and slaves. The caloric intake may be similar but the nutritional value is not. The typical diet of cornmeal, fatback, molasses, and an assortment of vegetables given to slaves is not a balanced diet. Fatback is a slice of pork under the back skin with hard fat with little or no muscle. It was often left to slaves and indentured servants to hunt or fish for most of their protein. Protein malnutrition is particularly evident in the remains of children who got the proportionally worst diet.  Through at least the early seventeenth century Native Americans continued to be a significant percentage of slaves, 20% in one Carolina census, and when census are compared, proportionally more Native American slaves were added than African. It was not until the end of the seventeenth century that the birth rate exceeded the death rate in Chesapeake, and even then, parents “were about as likely to die before their children reached their teens as their children were to reach maturity” (p. 137). Many children would be forced into early hard labor to survive. Although Hutchison does not discuss infection and nutrition as a syndemic, he does recognize the “synergistic relationship between nutrition and infectious disease” (p. 139). He notes that slave owners treated infectious disease but tended to ignore chronic or nutritional disorders that made the slaves more prone to serious infectious disease. I do wonder if this was not the attitude of most people except the richest families. It is unclear if they understood the nature of their malnutrition.

In the last section, Hutchinson turns more toward the first cities and urban life. In the last full chapter, he discusses the rapid development of New York City from the original Dutch colony to New York City on the verge of the Civil War. Early New York did not have a sanitary infrastructure so that it quickly became an extremely contaminated environment that was unhealthy for all of its inhabitants. Poverty was an issue for the inhabitants of New York from its earliest days. A constant stream of new poor immigrants meant that the labor market always had access to laborers for less than a living wage. Crowd diseases like smallpox and measles and filth diseases like dysentery always had a constant supply of vulnerable people to prey upon. The city streets were a zoo of animals that contributed to its disease ecology: hogs roamed the street eating refuse, mice and rats multiplied along with stray dogs and constant horse traffic. The city buzzed with urban mosquitoes and New York fell victim to Yellow fever 19 times between 1702 and 1822, but it still did not suffer as much or as often as Philadelphia or Charlestown (p. 166). By 1760 Beloe Island in New York Bay hosted a pesthouse for smallpox and yellow fever; fifty years later the island was ceded to the federal government for the construction of Fort Wood, now the foundation for the base of the Statue of Liberty. A sewage and water system was not installed in New York City until 1850.  As with other large cities in the more distant past, New York’s high mortality rate was offset by an even higher immigration rate into the city.

Hutchinson accomplished his goal of painting a very complex landscape of disease in Colonial America. To gain a more complete picture of the causes and effects of malnutrition and disease, social, cultural and economic factors have to be brought into play along with biological and ecological conditions.

It seems that this book overlapped in the publication process with the collected study Beyond Germs: Native Depopulation in North America, published in 2015. These two books complement each other even though there does not seem to be any contact between the authors. It seems we are on the verge of a new era of Native American studies that will be very welcome.


Jones, D. S. (2003). Virgin soils revisited. The William and Mary Quarterly, 60(4), 703–742.

Catherine Cameron, Paul Kelton, Alan Swedlund, Eds. Beyond Germs: Native Depopulation in North America. University of Arizona Press, 2015.


CFP: Contagions sessions at the International Congress for Medieval Studies 2018

by Michelle Ziegler

Contagions: The Society for Historic Infectious Disease Studies has been given the opportunity of organizing three sessions at next year’s International Congress for Medieval Studies. This is the equivalent of a full day at the congress. The Congress will be held from May 10 to May 13, 2018, at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo Michigan.  Our sessions next year will be:

Interdisciplinary Approaches to Historic Disease I and II

These two sessions are open to any aspect of study on infectious diseases and nutritional disorders in people and animals from the Late Antique to Late Medieval periods (400-1600 CE). These sessions are intended to be interdisciplinary as sessions, not necessarily as individual papers. Presentations on infectious diseases in literature, history, archaeology, and anthropology are all welcome.

Signs of Resilience in Medieval Populations

Major epidemics and natural disasters are ideal situations to study community resilience. No community is resistant to natural disasters; resilience is the best we can expect. Epidemics like the Black Death hit multiple communities in rapid succession but not all communities were equally affected in the short or long term. There are so many questions that can be asked.

  •  What allows some communities to quickly rebound while others dwindle away?
  • How do people mentally cope with a famine and/or massive epidemic?
  • What changes did communities make to better prepare or prevent a similar disaster in the future? Examples would include rebuilding flood walls or rerouting a river, increasing communal food stores, or building a surveillance system to detect the plague.
  • How did past experiences alter the community response to the next epidemic or another disaster?
  • How did responses differ between types of disaster (epidemic, flood, earthquake)? Flooding, at least, would be expected on a regular basis.
  • How did they prioritize their response? For example, did community leaders prioritize the economy (import/export) over public health?
  • What role did religious institutions play in disaster response?


Presentations are limited to 20 minutes. PowerPoint-like presentations are encouraged.  Participant Information Forms and an abstract are due to Michelle Ziegler by September 15th, contact prior to that date would be appreciated. Initial contact can be made through the form below.


An Anniversary year for Natural Disasters: 1815, 1665, and 1315

There are major natural disasters every year. In the last year alone we have had the major earthquake in Nepal just in the last couple days and a historic epidemic of Ebola. It’s too soon to tell how these latest disasters will seen by history and effect historical interpretations. This year there are three natural disaster anniversaries that stand out from the rest not just due to their mortality but also because of their impact on how we interpret the past.

Tambora, 1815

Mount Tambora Volcano, Sumbawa Island, Indonesia
Mount Tambora Volcano, NASA image (public domain)
Just a few weeks ago there was a minor splash in the news to mark the 200th anniversary of the eruption of Tambora on April 5, 1815. The photo to the right is the caldera of Tambora taken from space. As tragic as the thousands of deaths directly related to the eruption are, 1815 is best known as the ‘year without a summer’, a volcanic winter. It is impossible to know how many deaths resulted from crop failures and unseasonable weather. As the most recent volcanic winter, 1815 is an important because we have the most reliable scientific data, economic data, and descriptions of the effects on health and culture from people in all walks of life all over the globe. I don’t know as much about Tambora and its after effects as I would like, so I’m planning on reading The Year Without a Summer by historian William Klingman and meteorologist Nicholas Klingman (2013). If I like it, maybe you will hear more about it later this year.

Great Plague of London, 1665

This year is also the 350th anniversary of the Great London Plague that was followed closely by the Great London fire. Despite its reputation, the great plague of London was not the last major plague of Europe by a long shot.

17th century London
17th century London

The 1665 plague of London claimed up to 100,000 lives, about as many as died in the Marseille plague of 1720-3. Fifty years later, a similar size plague struck Moscow under Empress Catherine the Great. Yet, the London Plague is the one that gets the most attention.

A great deal of the notoriety of the Great Plague of London comes from the amount and quality of resources available in English.  Daniel Dafoe immortalized the plague in his novel, Journal of a Plague Year written in 1722. A savvy author, Dafoe timed it to take advantage of plague fears in southern Europe, concurrent with the plague in Marseille. It is testament to the Dafoe’s skill as a writer than his novel is often taken as historical evidence. I think I’ll mark the anniversary by reading Defoe’s classic.

The London plague has also been magnified by it linkage with the great fire of London in 1666. The relationship between the fire and the plague has been controversial. It has been sometimes assumed that the fire ended the plague, but the plague was winding down before the fire began. However, it is likely that the fire removed the environment that had supported the plague preventing its return; over 80% of the citizens of London were left homeless. Restoration of the capital city after the great fire also immortalized 1665-6 in the history of London.

Great European Famine, 1315

A less combustible but perhaps equally deadly anniversary this year is that of the Great Famine of 1315 that effected most of continental Europe. Seven hundred years ago the famine began and, while its hard to estimate famine mortality over three to seven years, perhaps up to 15% of Northern Europeans died. It began with soaking and then flooding rains that destroyed winter crops for two years with yields of wheat and rye in England and Wales 60% below normal in 1316, and again in 1321 with similar drops in yield. Also beginning in 1315 the great bovine pestilence, possibly rinderpest,  begins in Central Europe and spread across the continent: France and Germany, the Low Countries,  Denmark and England by 1319. In just one year, England and Wales lost approximately 62% of all bovines (Slavin 2012). The loss of dairy and beef was compounded by the fact that oxen provided the vast majority of traction and fertilizer. With similar losses across Europe, it took nearly 25 years to return cattle numbers to the pre-epizootic levels.

There was no respite for the 14th century. The childhood survivors of the famine and food shortage were the adults who were cut down by the Black Death in the 1340s. What effect malnutrition had on their developing immune system is a line of inquiry being explored by anthropologists Sharon DeWitte and historian Philip Slavin (2013). Let us not forget, it still got worse, between the crop failures and panzootic of 1315 and the Black Death in 1346 , the Hundred Years’ War begins in 1337.


Devaux, C. A. (2013). Small Oversights That Led to the Great Plague of Marseille (1720-1723) Lessons From the Past. Infection, Genetics and Evolution, 14(C), 169–185. doi:10.1016/j.meegid.2012.11.016 (for comparisons to other epidemics)

Slavin, P. (2010). The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Reassessed: Between Ecology and Institutions — Evidence from England (1310-1350). EHA Paper, 1–14.

Slavin, P. (2012). The Great Bovine Pestilence and its economic and environmental consequences in England and Wales, 1318–501. The Economic History Review, 1–28.

Dewitte, S., & Slavin, P. (2013). Between Famine and Death: England on the Eve of the Black Death—Evidence from Paleoepidemiology and Manorial Accounts. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 1–25.