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Visualizing the 1721 Epidemic

Partially Supported by a NULab Seedling Grant

Exactly 400 years ago, Boston suffered one of the worst outbreaks of what had, by then, become a familiar disease that struck the city every few decades. As smallpox stalked the streets of Boston, the social fabric of the city wore thin. Advocates for aggressive interventions to halt the spread of the epidemic met fierce resistance from those who thought the disease would pass on its own; between the summer of 1721 and the spring of 1722, intellectual disputes about the nature and course of the outbreak frequently turned violent, while, around the city, over 800 residents (of around 10,000) fell sick and died. This account resonates with our own experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and, as the 400-year anniversary of the outbreak arrives, Visualizing the 1721 Epidemic, a digital humanities project that re-examines smallpox’s footprint in colonial Boston, will be an invaluable tool for analyzing differential experience and impact of illness in the city’s past and present. Visualizing the 1721 Epidemic will use computational tools to move beyond elite perspectives, providing novel insight that expands beyond the individual views of prominent historical authors. The approach is inspired by discussions of “Deaths above Average” or “Excess Deaths” during the COVID-19 pandemic. If historians have been stymied by historical records that only infrequently name the cause of death, analyzing all deaths in time and space during the outbreak will reveal clusters of death we will be able to attribute to the egg and flow of the epidemic as smallpox took root among different communities in the colonial city. The tools of the Digital Humanities allow us to ask, therefore, when and if particular neighborhoods bore the brunt of the disease more heavily than others, or for longer terms, or at increased intervals. As such, we might finally glimpse how the experience of the disease interacted with the fissures created by race, class, and gender to create different mortality rates and different histories of exposure and loss.

Principal Investigator

Chris Parsons, Faculty, History

Project Manager

Molly Nebiolo, PhD Candidate, History

Research Assistants

Ashley Brown Undergraduate; Jacob Davis, Undergraduate; Ishan Narra, Undergraduate; Thrusha Puttaraju, Undergraduate

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