Skip to content

Gresham College: Prof. Sir Richard Evans – The Great Plagues: Epidemics in History from the Middle Ages to the Present Day – #5/6 – The Great Unwashed


About this lecture series

Epidemic diseases have been as important as war in their devastating effects on human society through the ages. This series of lectures looks at them in their relation to society, the economy, culture and ideas, and the state. Almost always their origin and spread are conditioned by human interactions, and the effectiveness of medical intervention still depends heavily on the social and political context. We will be examining the extent to which epidemics have brought about social change, how they have affected politics, and where they have affected, or been affected by, the state. The lectures will consider the cultural impact of epidemics, in art and literature, and in religious belief. We will be looking at the possibilities of future epidemics and the threats disease poses for human society today.

About this lecture

Typhus, the subject of the fifth lecture in the series, was caused by a bacterium hosted by the human body louse, and has thus always been associated with dirty and overcrowded conditions and spread above all by armies marching across the countryside and living in filthy and unhygienic conditions. In 18th-century England it was known as ‘gaol fever’. The ‘hyginenic revolution’ of the Victorian era reduced its incidence. Preventive measures taken on the Western Front reduced casualties, but it recurred during the Second World War, especially at Stalingrad and in Nazi concentration camps. The Nazis carried out numerous experiments on involuntary human subjects to try and develop preventive measures; in Nazi propaganda, the spread of typhus was attributed to the Jews, who were likened to bacilli or lice in order to make their mass murder at Auschwitz and elsewhere acceptable. 

About Sir Richard Evans, FBA

Professor Sir Richard Evans FBA is Provost of Gresham College. He is a world-renowned historian and academic, with many of his books now acknowledged as seminal works in the field of modern history. He was Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge from 2008 until his retirement in September 2014. 

In 2012 Sir Richard was appointed Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, for services to scholarship. In 2014 he was awarded the Historical Association’s Norton Medlicott Medal for his ‘outstanding contribution to History’, particularly through his ‘significant’ and ‘robust’ engagement in recent national debates about school curriculum reform and about the teaching and commemoration of the First World War. He has been a Fellow of the British Academy since 1993, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society since 1978 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 2001. He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa by London University in 2013.

Sir Richard has published 18 books as author and seven as editor. In 2008 he published the third part of his monumental large-scale history of the Third Reich, The Third Reich at War, which completed the series of The Coming of the Third Reich (2003) and The Third Reich in Power (2005). The series has sold more than 250,000 copies in English and has been translated into twelve foreign languages. His most recent book, Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History, was published to wide acclaim in January 2014. Prior to this his key publications include: Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent (2009), Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History, and the David Irving Trial (2002), In Defence of History (1997), Rituals of Retribution (1996) and Death in Hamburg (1987), which won the Wolfson Foundation History Prize.

Sir Richard has a strong public engagement as an historian, including acting as principal expert witness in the David Irving libel trial before the High Court in London in 2000. He is currently Deputy Chair of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, a non-departmental public body which advises on claims for the return from public museums and galleries in the UK of artworks looted during the Nazi era.

Sir Richard has lectured extensively all over the world at a variety of literary festivals and events. He has been Editor of the Journal of Contemporary History since 1998 and a judge of the Wolfson History Prize since 1993.

He is a frequent contributor to the broadcast media and the press. His appearances on British television include BBC 1 (Sunday Politics with Andrew Neill) and Channel 4 News. His appearances on British Radio include BBC Radio 4 (Start the Week, In Our Time, Today and World at One), Radio 3 (Nightwaves) and Radio 2 (John Dunn Show). He has also appeared widely television and radio outside the UK, most notably on North German Radio/Television, West German Radio/Television and Radio Multikulti Berlin.

Sir Richard was Gresham Professor of Rhetoric between 2009 and 2013. His series of lectures were as follows:

2012/13 The Great Plagues: Epidemics in History from the Middle Ages to the Present Day
2011/12 The Rise and Fall of European Empires from the 16th to the 20th Century
2010/11 The Victorians: Culture and Experience in Britain, Europe and the World, 1815-1914
2009/10 War and Peace in Europe: From Napoleon to the Kaiser

Previously, he delivered two series of lectures as Visiting Professor of History.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: