SECTION 3 HISTORY AND THE OTHER DISCIPLINES: Medicine and infectious disease

European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange 

How did the Columbian exchange link worlds?

Charles F. Merbs, “A New World of Infectious Disease” Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 35 (1992): 3-42. And OMRF, “Columbus brought more than ships to the new world” (2013)

The discovery of the Americas and further exploration of it in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries introduced two previously isolated worlds of infectious diseases to one another. Without preexisting immunities and antibodies, these diseases spread as epidemics throughout Europe and the New World. Anthropologist Charles Merbs summarizes the impact on the exchange of disease saying “The devastating effects of these crowd diseases in the post-Columbian period are well known, with conditions such as smallpox, diphtheria, measles, malaria, bubonic plague, yellow fever, and possibly typhus killing thousands of Native Americans, thus allowing inhabitants of the eastern hemisphere to become firmly established in the western hemisphere. Less is known about the diseases present in the Americas prior to 1492, but they probably included treponemal infections (pinta and syphilis), tuberculosis, forms of leishmaniasis and trypanosomiasis, fungal diseases such as coccidioidomycosis and paracoccidioidomycosis, various coccal infections, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, legionellosis, hydatid disease, and a variety of intestinal parasite infections.” Stephen Prescott, M.D, president of the biomedical research company OMRF, says “think about swine flu and bird flu. We’re always on the lookout for viruses that pass from humans to animals, mutate DNA, and then return to humans. Well, that didn’t just start last year. So long as humans have been raising livestock, we’ve been passing viruses back and forth.” He continues, “When explorers from Europe reached the Americas, they brought livestock and they brought diseases and the result was devastating.” Some estimates suggest that approximately 250,000 natives lived in Hispaniola in 1492. New infectious diseases brought by Columbus and his crews are estimated to have killed as many as 236,000 of these people by 1517, almost obliterating their entire population. “Whether or not we celebrate Columbus Day, we should all celebrate how far our immune systems have come,” Prescott said. “Now we just have to worry that they’re too good, which might be behind the rise in allergies and autoimmune diseases.”