Historical Expertise

Retro-Diagnosing Fictional Plagues

Teaching a course on plagues and epidemics in history makes me more aware than normal of press reports about some group of scientists trying to retro-diagnose some historical plague or epidemic (Find a description of this course and a link to the syllabus on my Recent Courses page). There seems to have been a rash of them lately — paradigmatic studies arguing that the “Black Death” was caused by yersinia pestis and further efforts to find the origins of syphilis. While these might be good science, though I’m not convinced, they are bad history. And I confess, I don’t really understand the benefit of such research.

A Bust of Sophocles

Recent research, however, has crossed the line from possibly useful to absurd. A group of physicians has retro-diagnosed a fictional plague, the plague in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

Read my complete rant over at PACHS: Retro-Diagnosis Run Amok—Sophocles’ Plague of Thebes

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