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The third pandemic of plague (in its bubonic and pneumonic clinical forms) struck the globe between 1894 and 1959. As Yersinia pestis spread from country to country and from continent to continent, it left behind it not only a trail of death and devastation, but also a vast visual archive. It was the first time that plague would reach and establish itself in all inhabited continents. But it was also the first time that any epidemic would be photographed. As plague spread from harbour to harbour, and amongst cities, towns and villages, so did photographs of the pandemic through reproductions in the daily and illustrated press. Rather than forming a homogeneous or linear visual narrative, these photographic documents provided diverse perspectives on the pandemic, which, more often than not, were not simply different from region to region, but in fact conflicting within any single locus of infection. Moreover this photographic production came to establish a new field of vision, what we may call “epidemic photography” which continues to inform the way in which we see, depict and imagine epidemics and their social, economic, and political impact in the age of Global Health.

In Russia, plague drew the interest of a growing number of medical scientists who enjoyed the sponsorship of Prince Alexander Petrovich of Oldenburg. Functioning under the auspices of the internationally active Russian Plague Commission the so-called Plague Fort (Fort Alexander), originally a naval fortress, housed an important plague laboratory from 1899 until 1917. Whilst depicting intensive experiments, Plague Fort’s photographic record also portrays the convivial atmosphere amongst Russia’s plague pioneers, and the tragic end of a number of scientists as a result on plague infection. The Plague Commission organised numerous important plague expeditions both within the Russian Empire (esp. to its Central Asian provinces and to Transbaikalia) and abroad (India, Porto, Manchuria, Arabia) and led to the establishment of several anti-plague stations (e.g. Transbaikalia, the Caucasus) with leading scientists like Danilo Kirilovich Zabolotny making major contributions to the understanding of sylvatic plague. At the same time plague outbreaks in Russian harbours like Odessa advanced the study of rats as hosts of the disease.


Plague Fort, Laboratory, Doctor, Patient, Plague, Podlevsky, Berestnev, Russia, St Petersburg

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Institute of Experimental Medicine (Saint Petersburg, Russia)

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The database "Photographs of the Third Plague Pandemic" was funded by an European Research Council Starting Grant (under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme/ERC grant agreement no 336564) for the project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic, led by Dr Christos Lynteris (PI); The Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) of the University of Cambridge (2013-2018). The project would like to thank its postdoctoral researchers, Drs Lukas Engelmann, Nicholas H. A. Evans, Maurits Meerwijk, Branwyn Poleykett and Abhjit Sarkar, and its administrators Mss Teresa Abaurrea, Emma Hacking and Samantha Peel for their contribution to this database.