Contagions, Conquest, & Quarantines: Mapping Disease From Venice to Houston

Thomas Goetz (Wired Magazine)
Keynote Yerba Buena Salon 9
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Disease, especially infectious disease, has always been dependent on location. The first quarantines occurred in 14th century Venice, requiring visiting sailors to spend 40 days (‘quaranta’) aboard before they could disembark, lest they spread ills from some distant land. And when syphilis began to march across Europe in the late 15th century, it was first known in Italy as the French Disease (thanks to French soliders), while in France it was called the Italian Disease. Meanwhile, in Holland it was the Spanish Disease; in Russia, it was the Polish Disease, and so on. (In fact, the disease most likely came over from the Americas in 1494, one of less auspicious of Columbus’ discoveries.)

Even before the Germ Theory was developed in the 1870s, it was impossible to separate disease from place. When an outbreak of disease occurred, it created, all at once, a new map that created new rules for trade, politics, and society. But not all infections were outbreaks – the slow, unstoppable march of tuberculosis changed the perception of space and logistics on a different pace, creating a less sudden but no less significant dislodging of social conventions and forging new patterns of migration and development.

This talk will explore the legacy of infectious disease on our perceptions of geography and space. It will distinguish between the “fast maps” that came with outbreaks, and the “slow maps” that emerged as entire nations tried to outrun a ferocious killer like TB. And it will connect these fast and slow maps to our contemporary quest to eliminate infectious disease altogether – tracking it down town by town until it fades from the map altogether.

Photo of Thomas Goetz

Thomas Goetz

Wired Magazine

Thomas Goetz is the executive editor of WIRED Magazine, and author of the book The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized Medicine. Since Goetz joined WIRED in 2001, the magazine has been nominated for 23 National Magazine Awards and has won nine times, including the top award for General Excellence three times. His cover stories at WIRED have been selected for both the Best American Science Writing and the Best Technology Writing anthologies. Goetz holds a Master’s degree in English from the University of Virginia and a Master of Public Health degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

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