Is 2020 the worst year ever? Springfield historians weigh in

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – By now, you’ve probably heard someone claim that 2020 is the worst year ever. But, do historians agree with that?

The first teacher Ozarks First spoke with is Jeremy Neely, assistant professor of history at Missouri State University. Neely has been studying history since before his college years, dating back to 1998.

Greg French, department chair for social sciences at Ozarks Technical Community College, also offered his thoughts. French has been studying history since about 2005.

Then, there’s Michael Verney, an associate professor of history at Drury University. Verney declared himself a history major in 2006.

When you ask these professors if 2020 is the worst year ever, they’re quick to point something out first.

“It’s certainly been a chaotic year,” French said. “Is it the worst year in our lifetime? Possibly. But, the job of a historian is to look at long-term trends.”

“2020 has been an incredibly difficult year,” Verney said. “People are suffering financially and emotionally in terms of lost family members, in terms of also environmental. That pain is real, that struggle is real. I don’t want to take away from that.”

“It’s tough to say that 2020 is the worst year Missouri has ever had,” Neely said. “But, I think for those who have lived in 2020, it’s the most difficult year we’ve had in recent memory.”

You might’ve guessed it: Collectively, their answer is no. So, which year tops the list? French answers first.

“Actually, kind of a series of years between about 1347 and 1353 in Europe, which is the arrival of the Black Death,” French said.

Another term for the Black Death is the Bubonic Plague. The plague had a mortality rate of 50-70 percent.

“It kills about a third of Europe’s population in that four to five-year period,” French said. “People at that time didn’t really know what was causing it. Just the unknown of being in that time period would’ve been far more traumatic.”

Verney, a U.S. historian, picks a time more than 500 years later.

“1857 is the worst year in American history,” Verney said. “And, a big part of that is slavery. In terms of raw human suffering, really any of the Antebellum years are worse than 2020.”

In 1857, around four million people were separated from their families – only to face more physical and emotional pain.

“This is a year that really we are lucky we did not live through,” Verney said.

Neely’s answer is three years later than Verney’s: The 1860’s. He studies the Civil War era.

At the time, Missouri served as a border state. It was divided between Confederate and Union Soldiers — the majority group.

“We see the wholescale destruction of entire communities,” Neely said. “We see the worst kinds of guerilla warfare that one can imagine. And, then on top of that, the unprecedented number of deaths among regular soldiers.”

Even during a difficult 2020, each teacher says people have a reason to be hopeful about the future.

“The fact that we are on the cusp of developing a vaccine within one year of identifying the virus is historically pretty incredible,” French said. “It doesn’t decrease the tragedies that we have faced, but there are other years that would take the cake for the worst year or time period. There is a reason for optimism right now.”

French says history shows that a pandemic is nothing new.

“A positive to take away from this is humanity has recovered from past pandemics,” French said. “Humanity has been resilient.”

“I can’t guarantee that next year will be better than this year,” Neely said. “If history has taught us anything it’s that things can often get worse. This too shall pass, but when the day gets better, remains unknown.”

“Americans can be knocked down, but we almost always get up,” Verney said. “Regardless of the force of the blow that cast us down to the dirt. There is so much hope. I have complete confidence that we will get back on our feet, and we will be stronger because of this experience.”

Other years mentioned by the professors:

  • 536 AD: After the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe, a volcano erupts in Iceland. This blocks out the sun in northern and western Europe, causing crops and temperature struggles. Eventually, it leads to an Ice Age.
  • 1918: Spanish Influenza outbreak
  • 1930’s: Great Depression

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