Nicholas Bonneau

Ph.D. Candidate Department of History University of Notre Dame

2016 to 2017
Research Fellow

Unspeakable Loss, Distempered Awakenings: North America's Invisible Throat Distemper Epidemic of 1735-1765

Fifty years ago, historians pronounced parental valuation of children's lives to be contingent upon particular historical contexts. Although long since discredited, this verdict continues to provide a convenient, if inaccurate, explanation for conspicuous lack of parental grief in the historical record. Consequentially, epidemics resulting in a disproportionate loss of children are dismissed as unimportant. An example is the New England Throat Distemper Epidemic. By 1739 more than 5,000 out of 200,000 settlers lay dead; 98% were children. Combining traditional research methodologies with digital humanities technology I reconstruct this catastrophic event, revealing how high mortality among children resulted in a discernible reaction among parents whose loss isolated them from supportive networks and thus from the historical record. This dark matter in our universe of human experience accounts for a mass of emotional outpouring contemporary to the First Great Awakening, provides a medical-historical analogue to recovering subaltern voices, and furnishes a new model for understanding loss.