Prediction and control of the geographical spread of emerging pathogens has become a central public health issue. Because these infectious diseases are by definition novel, there are few data to characterize their dynamics. One possible solution to this problem is to apply lessons learnt from analyses of historical data on familiar and epidemiologically similar pathogens. However, the portability of the spatial ecology of an infectious disease in a different epoch to other infections remains unexamined. Here, we study this issue by taking advantage of the recent re-emergence of pertussis in the United States to compare its spatial transmission dynamics throughout the 1950s with the past decade. We report 4-year waves, sweeping across the continent in the 1950s. These waves are shown to emanate from highly synchronous foci in the northwest and northeast coasts. In contrast, the recent resurgence of the disease is characterized by 5.5-year epidemics with no particular spatial structure. We interpret this to be the result of dramatic changes in patterns of human movement over the second half of the last century, together with changing age distribution of pertussis. We conclude that extrapolation regarding the spatial spread of contemporaneous pathogens based on analyses of historical incidence may be potentially very misleading.