Throughout history, mankind's working theories regarding the cause of infectious disease have shifted drastically, as cultures developed their philosophic, religious, and scientific beliefs. Plagues that were originally attributed to the wrath of the god Apollo were later described by Thucydides as having nothing to do with the gods, though the cause was just as much a mystery to him as well. As centuries passed, medical and religious theorists proposed reasons such as poor air quality or the configuration of the planets as causes for the spread of disease. In every instance, in order to understand the origin of a disease theory during a specific period of history, one must understand that culture's metaphysical beliefs. In Confronting Contagion, Melvin Santer traces a history of disease theory all the way from Classical antiquity to our modern understanding of viruses.
Chapters focus on people and places like the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Galen and the emergence of Christianity in Rome, the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe, cholera and puerperal sepsis in the nineteenth century, and other significant periods during which man's understanding of the cause of disease developed or transformed. In each, Santer identifies the key thinkers, writers, and scientists who helped form the working disease theories of the time. The book features many excerpts from primary sources, from Thucydides to the writings of twentieth-century virologists, creating an authentic synthesis of the world's intellectual and religious attitude toward disease throughout history.