Army Forces and epidemic diseases: A travel through the XIXth century International Sanitary Conferences

Keywords: Communicable diseases, Military medicine, International cooperation, Cholera, Quarantine, XIXth Century


This article involves a critical examination of XIXth century military interventions, as the basic cause of the international contagion. Challenges arising and choices made in a critical reading of the International Sanitary Conferences (ISC) proceedings, reveal case histories and early statistical techniques at use with epidemiological purposes. These episodes in the history of the diseases suggest that relevant military information was circulated among health professionals through the ISCs. Although the evolution of the epidemic process during the latter half of the XIXth century made the Conferences fail to cure the diseases that the Western medicine own expansion engendered. By discussing the ways that prophylactic measures and international interventions were used by medical scientists and diplomats alike, from the detailed records of troop mortality to such ubiquitous terms as "contagion" and "quarantine", the article seriously reflect on what happened when action taken by military forces was a mass phenomenon. As evidenced from the study of the proceedings when comparing different populations, in the pathologies associated with the mass-transport era the rationale of interaction outlined the challenges involved in the train transport of troops. Also, the existence of an environmental risk factor can answer the question on the action taken by military forces as a mass phenomenon with huge impacts on hospitals, harbors and prisons. Materials intended for these international epidemics studies and commissions were prepared by experimented military and civil medical doctors who believed that evidence and common sense proved epidemic diseases capable of being prevented, treated, and controlled by a military approach. This essay demonstrates that Army forces' capability to take control over their host governing apparatus, emphasizes the importance of their aim to follow and accompany the control of the disease in the imperialist competition for land. It grows out of its specific historical context, which due to its origin could become uniform and international, but constituted the principal obstacle on the road to an international health office.


Download data is not yet available.


Baldwin, P. (2005). Contagion and the state in Europe, 1830–1930. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Briggs, A. (1961). Cholera and society in the Nineteenth Century. Past & Present, 19(1), 76-96.

Bynum, W. F. (1993). Policing hearts of darkness – aspects of the international sanitary conferences. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 15(3), 421–434.

Capshew, J. H. & Rader, K. A. (1992). Big science: Price to the present. Osiris, 7, 3–25.

Coste, J. (2019). Les registres hospitaliers d'admission, des sources pour l'épidémiologie historique de l'époque moderne. Leçons tirées de l'étude du registre de l'Hôtel royal des Invalides (1670–1791). In É. Belmas & S. Nonnis-Vigilante (Eds.), La santé de populations civiles et militaires: Nouvelles approches et nouvelles sources hospitalières, XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles. Lille: Septentrion.

Curtin, P. D. (1998). Disease and empire: the health of European troops in the conquest of Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, R. J. (1988). Epidemics and revolutions: cholera in Nineteenth-century Europe. Past & Present, 120(1), 123–146.

Hamlin, C. (1992). Predisposing causes and public health in early nineteenth-century medical thought. Social History of Medicine, 5(1), 43–70.

Hardy, A. (1993). Cholera, quarantine and the English preventive system, 1850–1895. Medical History, 37(3), 250–269.

Harrison, M. (2006). Disease, diplomacy and international commerce: the origins of international sanitary regulation in the nineteenth century. Journal of Global History, 1(2), 197–217.

Howard-Jones, N. (1975). The scientific background of the International Sanitary Conferences 1851–1938. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Huber, V. (2006). The unification of the globe by disease? The international sanitary conferences on cholera, 1851-1894. The Historical Journal, 49(2), 453–476.

International Sanitary Conference, (1852). Procès-verbaux de la Conférence sanitaire internationale ouverte à Paris le 27 juillet 1851. Paris: Impr. nationale. Retrieved from

International Sanitary Conference, (1874). Procès-verbaux de la Conférence sanitaire internationale, ouverte à Vienne le 1 juillet 1874. Vienne: Impr. Impériale et Royale. Retrieved from

International Sanitary Conference, (1881). Proceedings of the International Sanitary Conference: provided for by joint resolution of the Senate and House of Representatives in the early part of 1881. Washington: G.P.O. Retrieved from

International Sanitary Conference, (1885). Protocoles et procès-verbaux de la Conférence sanitaire internationale de Rome, inaugurée le 20 mai 1885. Rome: Impr. du Ministère des affaires étrangères. Retrieved from

International Sanitary Conference, (1893). Protocoles et procès-verbaux de la Conférence sanitaire internationale de Dresde, 11 mars-15 avril 1893. Dresde: Impr. B.G. Teubner. Retrieved from

International Sanitary Conference, (1897). Conférence sanitaire internationale de Venise, 16 février-19 mars 1897: procès-verbaux. Rome: Forzani et cie, imprimeurs du Sénat. Retrieved from

Lederberg, J. (2000). Infectious History. Science, 288(5464), 287–293.

Mackillop, E., & Sheard, S. (2019). The politics of health policy knowledge transfer: the evolution of the role of British health economics academic units. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice, 15(4), 489–507.

Marroin, A. (1861). Histoire médicale de la flotte française dans la Mer Noire pendant la Guerre de Crimée. Paris: Baillère.

Morabia, A. (Ed.) (2004). A history of epidemiologic methods and concepts. Basel: Birkhäuser.

Ogawa, M. (2000). Uneasy bedfellows: science and politics in the refutation of Koch’s bacterial theory of cholera. The Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 74(4), 671–707.

Peckham, R. (2013). Infective economies: empire, panic, and the business of disease. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 41(2), 211–237.

Prinzing, F. (1916). Epidemics Resulting from Wars. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ringen, K. (1979). Edwin Chadwick, the market ideology, and sanitary reform: on the nature of the 19th-century public health movement. International Journal of Health Services, 9(1), 107–120.

Rosen, G. (1993). A History of Public Health. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rosenberg, C. (1992). Explaining Epidemics and Other Studies in the History of Medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Siegfried, A. (1960). Itinéraires de contagions. Épidémies et idéologies. Paris: Librairie Armand Colin.

Stern, A. M. & Markel, H. (2004). International efforts to control infectious diseases, 1851 to the present. JAMA, 292(12), 1474–1479.

Watts, S. J. (1997). Epidemics and history: disease, power and imperialism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Abstract views: 39
PDF Downloads: 16
How to Cite
Wulff, E. (2020). Army Forces and epidemic diseases: A travel through the XIXth century International Sanitary Conferences. History of Science and Technology, 10(1(16), 138-150.