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Humanity’s ongoing quest to end epidemics and escape contagion

 The Scots Mission Hospital. Dr. Torrance and Sister Lee care for Patient Dow, who is in an iron lung machine, 1940.
American Colony (Jerusalem). Photo Department, photographer.
The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC
The Scots Mission Hospital. Dr. Torrance and Sister Lee care for Patient Dow on an iron lung machine, 1940.

Before Covid, Most Americans couldn’t imagine the staggering loss of life that earlier generations experienced during epidemics of smallpox, diphtheria, polio and other fatal infectious diseases. We’ve been living in a golden age since WWII, when widespread use of vaccines and antibiotics eradicated the biggest killers and doubled life expectancy. But the catch-22 of medical discovery is that over time, we collectively forget the horror of the diseases from which we were saved.

Today, a look at our never-ending quest to escape contagion. We also talk about the myth of ‘Patient Zero’ and a lunar pandemic that never happened.


  • Richard Conniff is a National Magazine Award-winning writer for Smithsonian magazine, National Geographic, and other publications. He’s  also a former Guggenheim Fellow. His most recent book is Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape From Contagion.
  • Leyla Mei is a New York City-based writer and medical historian. She has a PhD in American history and writes about disease, risk and race. 
  • Dagomar DeGroot is an associate professor of environmental history at Georgetown University. His work has appeared in Aeon magazine, The Conversation, and The Washington Post, among other outlets.  His most recent book, Ripples in the Cosmic Ocean: An Environmental History of Humanity's Place in the Solar System, will be published in 2024. 

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Colin McEnroe, Jonathan McNicol, Cat Pastor, and Lily Tyson contributed to this show

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Betsy started as an intern at WNPR in 2011 after earning a Master's Degree in American and Museum Studies from Trinity College. She served as the Senior Producer for 'The Colin McEnroe Show' for several years before stepping down in 2021 and returning to her previous career as a registered nurse. She still produces shows with Colin and the team when her schedule allows.
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