Many of today’s college students are at least 3,400 years behind ancient Jews and some philosophers in discovering that wearing masks and social distancing are effective in controlling pandemics.

Jewish health laws are contained in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, also known as the book of laws. The prophet Moses was the main author of Leviticus.

Biblical scholars variously report his birth between 1571 BCE and 1391 BCE.

The scriptural record doesn’t reveal the sources of communicable diseases and Greek and Roman philosophers hadn’t discovered them either; but the health laws in Leviticus are clearly based on the fact that diseases such as plague and leprosy are communicable between people, and even by coming into contact with objects touched by the sick.

Jewish law required people diagnosed with a contagious disease to be isolated outside the camp or city as long as they had the disease. They also were required to wear a covering over their mouths.

Contaminated clothing, knitted material of wool or linen and any leather article touched by the sick were to be burned.

Melvin Santer’s “Confronting Contagion: Our Evolving Understanding of Disease,” published in 2015 by Oxford University Press, traces the history of contagion from the very earliest times to our modern time.

Coincidentally, I have just finished reading it as we are coping, or failing to cope, with the COVID-19 pandemic.

It isn’t for the casual reader; but for scientists and readers who are into the history of sciences.

Ancient pagan philosophers vigorously debated the cause of illness for hundreds of years before the common era.

Santer notes that the Western world’s earliest written record about contagion comes from literary works of the Greek playwrights Homer and Hesiod, and by philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Some ancients believed illnesses were caused by something so tiny it couldn’t be seen with the technology of the times.

Others believed that various gods inflicted diseases on plants and people as a punishment, and that only the relevant god could cure them.

Still others argued that there was something in nature that spawned disease and could be cured only by placating the relevant god that caused disease.

In a middle ground, some said disease was inflicted by gods, but that doctors could cure them through natural means.

Men of science slowly worked their way through discoveries that finally led to an understanding of bacterial and viral diseases.

Among the greatest was Galileo (1564 -1642), whom many consider the father of the scientific method.

But, the science of contagion was seriously slowed for centuries when Galileo was called to answer to the Inquisition. Scientists then had to tap dance around Inquisitors who could have them put to death if their science conflicted with Catholic doctrines, which it did.

The existence of bacteria wasn’t proven until Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovered “small animals” in 1683. The first virus was discovered by Dmitri Ivanovsky in 1892.

Even though the Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 proved that masking up and social distancing are effective against pandemic diseases, a hundred years later President Donald Trump and many of his supporters claim that COVID-19, wearing masks and social distancing are a hoax.

The Republican Party’s long anti-science history surely is implicated here.

Its politics are perverting science in the very agencies charged with protecting us from illness and unnecessary deaths.

Terence L. Day is a retired Washington State faculty member and a Pullman resident since 1972. He encourages email to

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