Infectious and Epidemic Disease in History

Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Week 4.  Colonies

excerpt from
"June 2001:  And the Moon Be Still as Bright" (1948)
in The Martian Chronicles
by Ray Bradbury (1920-    )

It was so cold when they first came from the rocket into the night that Spender began to gather the dry Martian wood and build a small fire....

In the flare that lighted the thin air of this dried-up sea of Mars he looked over his shoulder and saw the rocket that had brought them all, Captain Wilder and Cheroke and Hathaway and Sam Parkhill and himself, across a silent black space of stars to land upon a dead, dreaming world....

[M]any of them were hoping, perhaps, that the other expeditions had failed and that this, the Fourth, would be the one....

[Spender] fed the fire by hand, and it was like an offering to a dead giant.  They had landed on an immense tomb.  Here a civilization had died.  It was only simple courtesy that the first night be spent quietly....

There was a touch of fire across the sky, and an instant later the auxiliary rocket landed beyond the camp.  Spender watched as the small port opened and Hathaway, the physician-geologist -- they were all men of twofold ability, to conserve space on the trip -- stepped out.  He walked slowly over to the captain.

"Well?" said Captain Wilder.

Hathaway gazed out at the distant cities twinkling in the starlight.  After swallowing and focusing his eyes he said, "That city there, Captain, is dead and has been dead a good many thousand years.  That applies to those three cities in the hills also.  But that fifth city, two hundred miles over, sir--"

"What about it?"

"People were living in it last week, sir."

Spender got to his feet.

"Martians," said Hathaway.

"Where are they now?"

"Dead," said Hathaway.  "I went into a house on one street.  I thought that it, like the other towns and houses, had been dead for centuries.  My God, there were bodies there.  It was like walking in a pile of autumn leaves,  Like sticks and pieces of burnt newspaper, that's all.  And fresh.  They'd been dead ten days at the outside."

"Did you check other towns?  Did you see anything alive?"

"Nothing whatever.  So I went out to check the other towns.  Four out of five have been empty for thousands of years.  What happened to the original inhabitants I haven't the faintest idea.  But the fifth city always contained the same thing.  Bodies.  Thousands of bodies."

"What did they die of?"  Spender moved forward.

"You won't believe it."

"What killed them?"

Hathaway said simply, "Chicken pox."

"My God, no!"

"Yes.  I made tests.  Chicken pox.  It did things to the Martians it never did to Earth Men.  Their metabolism reacted differently, I suppose.  Burnt them black and dried them out to brittle flakes.  But it's chicken pox, nevertheless.  So York and Captain Williams and Captain Black must have got through to Mars, all three expeditions.  God knows what happened to them.  But we at least know what they unintentionally did to the Martians."

"You saw no other life?"

"Chances are a few of the Martians, if they were smart, escaped to the mountains.  But there aren't enough, I'll lay you money, to be a native problem.  This planet is through."

Spender turned and went to sit at the fire, looking into it.  Chicken pox, God, chicken pox, think of it!  A race builds itself for a million years, refines itself, erects cities like those out there, does everything it can to give itself respect and beauty, and then it dies.  Part of it dies slowly, in its own time, before our age, with dignity.  But the rest!  Does the rest of Mars die of a disease with a fine name or a terrifying name or a majestic name?  No, in the name of all that's holy, it has to be chicken pox, a child's disease, a disease that doesn't even kill children on Earth!  It's not right and it's not fair.  It's like saying the Greeks died of mumps, or the proud Romans died on their beautiful hills of athlete's foot!  If only we'd given the Martians time to arrange their death robes, lie down, look fit, and think up some other excuse for dying.  It can't be a dirty, silly thing like chicken pox.  It doesn't fit the architecture; it doesn't fit this entire world!....

Go to:
  • Treatise against the Serpentine Disease... (c.1510) by Ruy Diaz de Isla (1462-1542)
  • the writings of an anonymous author in Tlatelolco (1528)
  • the Florentine Codex, or Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España (c.1579), created under the supervision of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (c.1499-1590):
    • Physicians, from Book X
    • Ailments of the Body and Medicines Suitable to Use for Their Cure, from Book X
    • The Plague Named Totomonjztli, from Book XII
  • Brief Relation of the Gods and Rites of Heathenism (c. 1629) by Don Pedro Ponce, Beneficiado of the District of Tzumpahuacan
  • Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain (1629) by Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón (c.1587-1646)
  • A Briefe and True Reporte of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590) by Thomas Hariot (1560-1621)
Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes