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Pandemics Through History

Students Read About an Early Pandemic and Create a Timeline

Pandemics Through History
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This activity begins with a made-up story about life in and around Rome in the middle of the second century CE. (CE means Common Era. The first century CE began in the year 1.) The main character is an 8-year-old girl living on the outskirts of Rome. The story is set at the beginning of the Antonine Plague, one of the earliest known pandemics. After reading the story, students are challenged to make a timeline of historical pandemics to demonstrate that the current coronavirus pandemic is not a one-of-a kind event. Students will reflect upon the ways in which pandemics have shaped the development of scientific and public health knowledge, and the treatments that have resulted.

Teacher Background

The Science

Pandemics are disease outbreaks that affect people in multiple countries or continents at a time; they are different from epidemics that occur in a local community or region. Pandemics have occurred many times throughout history, often with different diseases and separated from each other by many years. Pandemics in recorded history go as far back as 450 BC when the Plague of Athens killed 100,000 people. In 541 AD the Black Death killed half the world’s population, and in 1918 the Spanish influenza killed 50 million, including 675,000 in the US. Pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks are tracked by the World Health Organization (WHO). As of November 2020, WHO reports over 50 million cases of COVID -19 worldwide, with over 10 million cases in the United States.

Objectives and Standards

Learning Objective

Students will compare past and modern pandemics by constructing a timeline.





NGSS Science & Engineering Practices

Asking Questions and Defining Problems

Developing and Using Models


Set Up – 10 minutes

Activity – 2- 45 minute classes

Materials and Setup


Computer for Internet searches

Timeline Assignment student sheet (one copy per student or an electronic copy)

Assorted supplies such as paper, markers, tape, etc.

(Alternate) Computer with presentation software

Procedure and Extensions


1. Begin the class by reading, or giving students the opportunity to read, the story “The Antonine Plague.”

2. After the story, ask How was the unknown illness brought to Livia’s town and family? Why do you think Livia’s parents, and her town, succumbed to the illness so quickly? [Accept all responses. Consider the historical time.] What are underlying conditions? How do underlying conditions affect a person’s response to disease? Why did Livia survive the pandemic?

3. Explain that pandemics, which are disease outbreaks that affect people in multiple countries or continents at a time, are different from epidemics that occur in a local community or region. Pandemics have occurred many times throughout history, often with different diseases and separated from each other by many years. This is why the current pandemic seems like something new to many people. As a result, they don’t know what to do, what to think, or what to believe. Unfortunately, lessons of the past are sometimes forgotten.


4. Tell the students they will learn more about past pandemics as they organize a timeline of historical occurrences.

5. Project the student Timeline Assignment docx or provide the information to students. Explain that each student will research pandemics that have occurred throughout history. You, the teacher may assign the number of pandemics to research, typically between 5 and 10. Read over the list of instructions detailing the information students should collect. You may decide on the format for the timeline. The timeline can be constructed out of paper and other common materials from around the house or it can be constructed on a computer using programs like PowerPoint.

6. The primary source for information for this project is the Internet. Students should use a search term such as “Pandemics in History.” As with all Internet searches, more than one source should be used to confirm the accuracy of the information they gather. Students should select scientific or health sources from educational institutions (.edu), government sources (.gov), on-line encyclopedias, etc. Credits for the information must be given. Provide students with any school or school district guidelines or resources for safe searches on the Internet.

7. Assign the due date for completion and sharing of the timeline.


8. Upon completion, have students present their projects to the class and discuss interesting facts and discoveries they made about pandemics.

9. In a class discussion, compare different methods people used in pandemics to protect themselves from infection. How far back can students trace the use of facial coverings as a preventative method? During what time period were new treatments used or vaccines introduced and developed?

10. Ask and discuss, What lessons have we learned from past pandemics that can help us navigate and mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic?


11. Student will not have identical pandemic lists. Organize all the different pandemics they identified into a class timeline for a broader perspective.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Smallpox.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.

World Health Organization. Frequently asked questions and answers on smallpox.


The COVID HACKS curriculum project is made possible thanks to the support from Laura & John Arnold and Baylor College of Medicine. Scientists, educators and physicians from Baylor College of Medicine provided content, feedback and technical reviews.