*Understanding disease distributions is of fundamental and applied importance, yet few studies benefit from integrating broad sampling with ecological and phylogenetic data. Here, anther-smut disease, caused by the fungus Microbotryum, was assessed using herbarium specimens of Silene and allied genera of the Caryophyllaceae. *A total of 42,000 herbarium specimens were examined, and plant geographical distributions and morphological and life history characteristics were tested as correlates of disease occurrence. Phylogenetic comparative methods were used to determine the association between disease and plant life-span. *Disease was found on 391 herbarium specimens from 114 species and all continents with native Silene. Anther smut occurred exclusively on perennial plants, consistent with the pathogen requiring living hosts to overwinter. The disease was estimated to occur in 80% of perennial species of Silene and allied genera. The correlation between plant life-span and disease was highly significant while controlling for the plant phylogeny, but the disease was not correlated with differences in floral morphology. *Using resources available in natural history collections, this study illustrates how disease distribution can be determined, not by restriction to a clade of susceptible hosts or to a limited geographical region, but by association with host life-span, a trait that has undergone frequent evolutionary transitions.