In 1913, historian of science George Sarton created what has become the Isis Current Bibliography of the History of Science (IsisCB). For the last 110 years, the journal Isis has included a comprehensive survey of the recent work in the history of science and allied fields, first in each issue and later as a full yearly supplement. Now the basis of a free online search tool called IsisCB Explore, the IsisCB continues to serve as an indispensable reference for scholars and students.
“Bibliographic Essays on the History of Pandemics” is a special issue of the IsisCB published in September 2023. Co-edited by HSS Bibliographer Stephen P. Weldon and historian of biology Neeraja Sankaran, the issue gathers current and important historical scholarship on infectious disease. It features nineteen essays along with accompanying bibliographies of go-to sources in the field. All essays and bibliographies in this issue are free to read, and a companion podcast series supplies in-depth interviews with the editors and contributors.
Conceived in 2020 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the special issue was intended to serve as a key resource for historians of science with applications extending beyond the discipline. Sankaran and Weldon believed that doctors, virologists, public health experts, and activists could also find significant value in a historically grounded survey of disease history. Speaking to the timeliness of the scholarship in this issue, contributors Robert Peckham and Mei Li write: “At a time when history as a discipline is under intense institutional pressure to justify its worth, surely there can be no more compelling case for its vital importance.”
The issue is grouped into several thematic clusters that draw vital connections between historical and emerging themes in global health. These include a geographically focused cluster covering Asia, Europe, and Latin America, a pre-modern cluster with essays on the Ancient Mediterranean and Islamicate worlds, as well as a cluster focusing on other pandemic diseases in history. Essays in this cluster address the so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918-19, the AIDS pandemic, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
One unique feature of the project was the incorporation of an open peer review system. This practice, which aims to increase transparency in scholarly communication, allows readers to access the initial submitted version of an article, reviewer reports, and all revisions prior to publication. All previous versions of essays, reviewer feedback, and more are still accessible online.
The publication of this special issue represents not only a landmark contribution to the history of science, but also a milestone for the IsisCB. After 2023, the IsisCB Explore site will continue to grow and be available as a tool for bibliographic discovery, but the Isis Current Bibliography will no longer be published in static form. “Bibliographic Essays on the History of Pandemics” serves as a fitting milestone in the IsisCB’s 110-year history and will continue to inspire and support researchers for years to come.