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The great leveller: humanity's struggle against infectious disease
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The great leveller: humanity's struggle against infectious disease

Photograph of a team of African microscopists at workBattle against disease: a team of African microscopists at workEver since the Neolithic Revolution established the basis for settled agriculture and brought humankind into close and insanitary contact with animals, infectious disease has been the inseparable companion of human development. It has insinuated itself into patterns of settlement, trade, conquest and war, and shows no sign of abating.

Apart from a moment in the mid-20th century, when medical hubris and amnesia persuaded many that the ‘conquest’ of infectious disease was at hand, the pressure of population on natural habitats has produced new illnesses, including AIDS and several haemorrhagic fevers such as Lassa, Marburg and Ebola.

As the historian William H McNeill has stated, ‘from the point of view of other organisms, humankind therefore resembles an acute epidemic disease, whose occasional lapses into less virulent forms of behaviour have never yet sufficed to permit any really stable, chronic relationship to establish itself.’

If medical advance no longer appears unproblematic, it could be said that at least we have the knowledge of public health to fend off preventable disease. But knowledge and the will to act on it are not the same thing. While there always have been variations in the incidence and distribution (epidemiology) of disease, and although these differences have been influenced by a large number of social, economic and medical factors, the potential for everybody to be infected by disease will always be present while human beings exist.

Therein lies the justification for the title of this exhibition. During most of the historical period covered by this exhibition, ‘cure’ for most diseases was scarcely imaginable.

Our choice of exhibition theme reflects the leading role which the constituent parts of King’s College London have long played in medical research and, more recently, in the history of medicine and science. The exhibits, drawn from the holdings of the Foyle Special Collections Library, King“s College London include items from the historical collections of the medical schools at King’s and the historical library collection of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, transferred to King’s in 2007.

Exhibition curators: Niamh Delaney and Brandon High

Please note, this exhibition originally ran from 26 January to 15 April 2015 in the Weston Room of the Maughan Library, King's College London and is now available to view as an online exhibition only.

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