detail from nine plagues of london woodcut

“dead!—slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared…slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth…These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things—taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle…By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers…For neither do men live nor die in vain.”
— H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

Despite the affirmation of human birthright in this famous passage from The War of the Worlds, the sudden spread of disease powerfully leads us to rethink our place in the world. Far beyond the questions of quarantine and cure, epidemics bring uncertainty upon the values at the core of our cultures, histories, and traditions. What can and should we sacrifice in the name of survival, and how do we experience survival and make meaning from it? How do our infected, infectious bodies, our material physiology, or what literary historian Alan Bewell calls our “biomedical identities” affect our understanding of community, responsibility, personhood, will, mind, and soul? For writers, widespread disease presents unique problems and opportunities. Form, genre, and style influence how audiences perceive large-scale suffering, and authors must navigate the ethical considerations of how literature can and should attest to the lived experience of disease as a part of the human condition.

In this class we’ll explore how authors write about disease and how they use disease to write about the world around us. We’ll explore texts from different historical and cultural contexts, as well as different forms and genres such as journalism, memoir, fiction, poetry, drama, images, video, and games. More than anything else, we’ll create a low-stakes, high-engagement community rooted in curiosity, conversation, and collaboration. Keeping our focus on literary, cultural, and rhetorical analysis, we’ll work on multimedia writing projects and a creative research project instead of exams and papers. The most important aspect of the class, however, will be the day-to-day discussions and activities, which will be a responsibility and opportunity for us all.

plague doctor illustrationCourse Information

English 2275: Thematic Approaches to Literature
Plagues, Epidemics, and Outbreaks in Literature
Tues and Thurs from 2:20 to 3:40 in 1046 McPherson

Instructor: Trey Conatser,
Office: 324 Denney Hall (the Digital Media Project)
Office Hours: Tues 3:45 to 5:00 and Thurs 12:30 to 2:00

Note: let me know if you plan on visiting during office hours, in person or over email, in advance or just a few minutes prior

detail from a kansas hospital with soldiers with spanish fluGeneral Education Literature: Goals & Outcomes

Goals: Students evaluate significant texts in order to develop capacities for aesthetic and historical response and judgment; interpretation and evaluation; and critical listening, reading, seeing, thinking, and writing.

Outcomes: Students analyze, interpret, and critique significant literary works. Through reading, discussing, and writing about literature, students appraise and evaluate the personal and social values of their own and other cultures.


Paul Fürst, “Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom.” Public Domain.

United Stated Army. “The 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas” (detail). Public Domain.

Wellcome Library. “Nine images of the plague in London, 17th century” (detail). CC-BY 4.0.