10 Podcasts About the Worst Pandemics in History

Responding to world pandemics

In such delicate times, it’s easy to understand why some of us are glancing backward at the major pandemics in history. There has been a rich outflow of podcasts about COVID-19, but perhaps you’ve wondered how the pandemic compares to the Spanish Flu. Why hasn’t polio been completely eradicated? How did the ancients respond to widespread infection and what lessons did they learn from it? We took the time to find and review 10 podcasts that stood out to us about the worst pandemics in history. Happy quarantine!

1. Epidemics in History: The Plague

Variously known as the Pestilence and the Black Death, this now treatable disease appeared at multiple periods in history, leaving populations devastated for reasons no one could fathom. What exactly is plague? What were its symptoms and how was it passed on? This suspenseful three-part plague series of the Morbid Curiosity Podcast looks at the three Great Plague Pandemics (6th century CE, 1347, and 1855) and how they resonate in contemporary times.

The Host: The Morbid Curiosity Podcast is a watering hole for people with a taste for weird history and the paranormal. The host identified only as Hallie is a thorough technical researcher with a nose for the emotional dimension of every topic. Her straightforward narration style and the uncanny tempo of her voice make the episodes all the more gripping.

The Guests: There are no guests in this podcast.

Listen to the Morbid Curiosity Podcast

Must Listen Episodes

The Plague, Part 1: the Plague of Justinian

The Plague, Part 2: The Black Death

The Plague, Part 3: The Third Pandemic

Rating: Teen+

2. Epidemics in History: Syphilis

The Great Pox ravaged Europe at the end of the 15th century. Was this syphilis? Did Christopher Columbus bring Syphilis home from the New World? Searching for Syphilis investigates these medical mysteries in a short history of one of mankind’s greatest scourges. Listeners would be interested to know what is being done about a disease that affects 12 million people from infant to adult every year. 

The Hosts: Done in 2009, this intriguing boxset is a part of the S230 Infectious Diseases course from the Open University. The presentation is a film-style voiceover, interspersed with insight from distinguished guests. We found that the video version on YouTube performed better than the audio, which had minor buffering issues.

The Guests: While the host, a member of the Open Learn Team, is not identified, the guests include renowned archaeologist and anthropologist Don Brothwell (Emeritus Professor, University of York) and Dr. Sheila Lukehart (University of Washington).

Must Listen Episodes: 

What was the Great Pox?

Extracting DNA from ancient bone

Treatment for syphilis

Rating: Teen+

3. Epidemics in History: The Spanish Flu

The “forgotten pandemic” is being unearthed everywhere in the media today, and it’s easy to understand why. The Spanish Flu was one of the deadliest pandemics in recorded history, infecting some 500 million people between January 1918 and December 1920. Going Viral examines the pandemic and its ramifications on science, history and art. Listeners would also be interested to hear about how the epidemic shaped public policy across the world.

The Hosts: Mark Honigsbaum and Hannah Mawdsley are the “disease detectives” who dramatize first-person accounts about the pandemic, and memorializes the medical professionals who put their lives on the line to save others. Mawdsley is a historian at the National Trust, while Honigsbaum specializes in the history and science of infectious disease and is a regular contributor to The Lancet.

The Guests: The hosts are supported by a revolving roundtable of guests from prestigious institutions like the National Institutes of Health, Queen Mary College, London and the Wellcome Trust.

Must Listen Episodes 

Bringing Up The Bodies

Some Kind Of New Plague

Global Impacts, Local Traces

Rating: Teen+

4. Epidemics in History: AIDS

Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church is a podcast is about how moral positions shifted as the AIDS crisis raged in the 1980s and ’90s, and how different marginalized communities banded together to put the AIDS agenda front-and-center. The biggest victory from that epidemic is that it reminds us of the importance of service to people in need.

The Host: Michael O’Loughlin is a reporter and author with a focus on the Catholic Church. In this podcast, he chronicles the extreme fear and isolation that gay people of faith felt during the height of the epidemic. O’Loughlin’s ability to probe issues at the junction of ethics, culture, and politics makes him a great advocate for the people whose stories he tells.

The Guests: Gay Catholics who were personally affected by the AIDS crisis are the guests.

Must Listen Episodes 

The Catholic hospital that pioneered AIDS care

A Catholic Sister learns to serve people with AIDS

Surviving the AIDS crisis as a gay Catholic

Rating: 18+

5. Epidemics in History: Various

Cholera

Before the germ theory was formulated, people believed that disease was caused by miasma or bad smells in the air. One physician suspected otherwise. This episode from the Macabre London podcast called Cholera and Courage is about how Dr. John Snow convinced skeptics of his theories, and how his work tracking the cholera outbreak led to the lives of millions being improved. 

The Host: Nikki Druce is a writer and performer who has built up a strong following with her podcast that unrolls the history of London’s city streets in gruesome detail. In this episode, Druce conjures up a contaminated River Thames that you can almost smell.

The Guests: There are no guests in this podcast.

Rating: Teen=

Earlier Plagues

It’s often argued that Athens lost to Sparta because the Athenian population had been greatly reduced by plague at the start of the conflict. The Plague and the Peloponnesian War is an intriguing podcast about pandemic and war. Questions explored include: where did the plague come from? How did it affect the war? How did it change Athenian society? A great reminder that there is life after infection.

The Host: Ryan Evans worked as a deployed U.S. Army civilian in Afghanistan and is the publisher of the Texas National Security Review. He looks into issues of national security and the history of war on the War On the Rocks podcast.

The Guest: Evans is joined in this engaging episode by Prof. Neville Morley of the University of Exeter.

Listen The Plague and the Peloponnesian War

Rating: Teen+

Epidemics in History

From stories of pharaonic plague, to the bubonic plague, measles, and smallpox — the In Our Time podcast tracks the history of infectious disease. Listeners to the Man and Disease episode come away with a rich knowledge of how epidemics have shaped humankind through the ages.

The Host: BBC star Melvyn Bragg combines inquisitiveness with banter and an easygoing interview style. This old nerd has served as Chancellor of Leeds University and is currently a Governor of the London School of Economics.

The Guests: Bragg is joined in this episode by a crew of distinguished scientists and science historians. Dr. Anne Hardy, Reader in the History of Medicine at the Wellcome Trust Centre at University College London; David Bradley, Professor of Tropical Hygiene at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Dr. Chris Dye, epidemiologist with the World Health Organisation.

Listen to Man and Disease

Rating: Teen+

6. Epidemics Today: Zika

The world was shocked in October 2015 when reports started to come in of an increase in cases of microcephaly. It took a while for health professionals to connect the Zika virus with this condition, where a baby has a smaller head size compared with other babies of the same age and sex. In the Evidence in Action podcast series from the World Health Organization, we follow developments around the Zika outbreak and the neurological disorders associated with the virus. Listeners get a sense of how public health personnel, campaigns, and infrastructure are deployed to check the spread of an outbreak. It’s also nice to get some insight into how disease trends are monitored over time. 

The Host: Jaimie Guerra helps governments align health advocacy strategies at the WHO. She starts each episode of this podcast with a blank slate, asking guests fundamental questions that make scientific definitions and positions easy to follow and help establishes trust with the listener.

The Guests: The guests in this five-part series are high ranking officials from the WHO and sister organizations.

Listen to Evidence in Action

Must Listen Episodes 

Zika epidemiology

Zika virus research

Zika preparedness

Rating: Teen+

7. Epidemics Today: Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is nothing short of a public health crisis — it is notoriously difficult to diagnose and one of the fastest-growing vector-borne diseases today. The CDC estimates some 25,000 new cases every month! Lyme Voice is targeted to sufferers of the chronic illness but also does a good job of sensitizing non-sufferers to the emotional impact the disease is having on households. This podcast brings awareness to a desperately overlooked problem.

The Hosts: Aaron Sanchez and Sarah Schlichte Sanchez are a laid-back couple who make their guests feel very much at home. As a couple with first-hand experience of Lyme disease (Sarah battled the disease), they are champions on how to deal with chronic disease, and how to keep from getting infected.

The Guests: Guests range from medical professionals to individuals living with chronic Lyme disease. Conversations stay upbeat, and touching moments often come with a comedic twist.

Must Listen Episodes 

Lyme The First Epidemic Of Climate Change With Mary Beth Pfeiffer

When Illness Steals Your Spouse!

Tick Warriors with Jennifer Platt

Listen to Lyme Voice

Rating: Teen+

8. Epidemics Today: Various

Emerging Infectious Diseases is a series of dispatches from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that looks like a guidebook to infectious disease and disease hotspots around the world. There is even an episode about preparing reference materials for high-threat pathogens. Several episodes are dedicated to diseases of the animal world, which listeners will find interesting (zoonotic has to be a candidate for word of the year). The podcast stays positive because pathogens and contagion are discussed along with medications and public health measures.

The Host: Sarah Gregory is on the Communication/Social Media team at Emerging Infectious Diseases, a peer-reviewed journal published monthly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She gives free rein to her guests to answer questions in-depth, which can make episodes feel like classroom lectures, albeit very informative ones.

The Guests: Gregory tends to welcome clinicians, academics, and epidemiologists from the CDC.

Listen to Emerging Infectious Diseases

Must Listen Episodes 

 Developing Biological Materials to Prepare for Epidemics

Dog Flu in Canada

Epidemics in Movies

Rating: Teen+

9. Epidemics Today: COVID-19

The Epidemic podcast with Dr. Celine Gounder and Ronald Klain excels at surfacing stories from the fringes of the Coronavirus pandemic while celebrating the workers on the frontlines. The hosts guide conversations in a manner that helps the listener see this pandemic and others in a wider socio-economic context. Each podcast ends on an interactive note as the hosts take a few minutes to answer listener questions.

The Hosts: Dr. Celine Gounder is a disease specialist and epidemiologist who helped tackle Ebola as an aid worker in West Africa. Her co-host, Ron Klain, coordinated the U.S. response to the Ebola epidemic from 2014 to 2015.

The Guests: The hosts welcome everyone from journalists to scientists and activists to give listeners insight about their experiences on the frontline.

Listen to Epidemic

Must Listen Episodes 

On the frontlines and in people’s minds. 

Our health system’s in trouble

The destiny of nations depend on how they feed themselves

Rating: Teen+

10. Epidemics: AWARENESS

Infection to Disease

This Podcast Will Kill You, an educational podcast, is from two disease ecology Ph.D.s who radiate cheerfulness, curiosity, and caution at the same time. Each episode is structured around a real-world example — listeners are taken on a tour through the life-cycle of an infection from the ecological level to the disease phase as well as control efforts.

The Hosts: The Erins (Welsh and Allman Updyke) are clearly enthralled with pathogens and other medical mysteries. They might even help you cultivate a more hygienic daily routine.

The Guests range from academics and fellow researchers, to medical professionals with firsthand accounts.

Listen to This Podcast Will Kill You

Must Listen Episodes 

Shades of Syphilis

Dancing Plague: Worst Dance Party Ever

Chytrid: The Silent Forest

Rating: Teen+

Epidemics (Bonus): CURRENT CAMPAIGNS

Polio

There have been a few false dawns when it comes to polio eradication. The War on PolioUndark Podcast #20 helps listeners understand how social and economic forces can facilitate contagion and roll back years of public health gains.

The Host: Former NYT editor David Corcoran serves as host.

The Guest: Author and journalist Jo Chandler has reported from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan. She discusses her work helping to wipe out polio from the deepest confines, and has the odd humorous story on how a bit of theatre can make a public health campaign. 

Listen to The War on PolioUndark Podcast #20

Rating: Teen+

Ebola

There were two large Ebola outbreaks in the last decade — an outbreak in West Africa in 2014, and another in Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018. How did researchers come to grips with the disease? Why did the disease re-emerge a few years later, and what health issues do survivors face? In Ebola: Past, Present, FutureContagion Connect Podcast Episode 5 we hear about the challenges and about the delight that came with finding an effective vaccine, the challenges of the vaccination campaign, and why we need to keep an eye on regions affected by the virus.

The Host: The Contagion Connect editorial staff give two experts lots of space to tell their personal accounts of this evasive disease.

The Guests: First, we hear from John Johnson, a project lead for Ebola vaccination with Médecins Sans Frontières, followed by microbiologist Jason Kindrachuk.

Listen to Ebola: Past, Present, FutureContagion Connect Podcast Episode 5

Rating: Teen +

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