Between 1860 and 1864, August Hirsch published his monumental Handbuch der historisch-geographischen Pathologie in two volumes. In 1881 he finished an introduction to an updated edition, which Charles Creighton translated from German into English. This opus, published by the New Sydenham Society in three volumes, appeared during the years 1883 to 1886 and was entitled Handbook of Geographical and Historical Pathology. The Handbook represented a Herculean effort to detail the distribution of diseases of historical and geographic interest in time and in place.
Our work represents a similar undertaking, but with a major difference. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the dawn of germ theory, it was still possible (as Hirsch proved) for an individual working alone to produce a compilation of this sort. Today even the contemplation of such an attempt boggles the mind. The Cambridge World History of Human Disease project was launched in 1985 as a collective effort of some 160 social and medical scientists to provide at the close of this century something of what the Hirsch volumes provided at the end of the preceding century. We hope that, like the Hirsch volumes, our own effort will aid future students of health and disease in grasping our present-day understanding of diseases in their historical, spatial, and social dimensions.
Another important purpose of the project is to make available an understandable and accessible history of disease to social scientists and humanists in their many varieties. As historians, geographers, anthropologists, and other researchers have become increasingly aware of the importance of adding a biological dimension to their work, they have found the usual medical tomes, with their unfamiliar terminology and concepts, daunting indeed. We do not, however, ignore the needs of specialists in the many fields our work encompasses.
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