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10 Weird Ways Disease Altered The World

Sofia Nomis


Diseases leave obvious imprints on history. A decrease in population size and less genetic diversity are some examples of the impact you’d expect every epidemic to have. However, every once in a while, a disease has a truly remarkable and unusual effect on the world.

10Flu Of 1918 And The Treaty Of Versailles

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Photo credit: Edward N. Jackson

The Flu of 1918 devastated the world and infected one-third of the population. Additionally, it damaged brain cells, affecting the brain’s ability to function and even resulting in psychosis. In April 1919, Woodrow Wilson became infected with the flu. Wilson was president at the time and played an instrumental role in the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, particularly standing up the France’s prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, who wanted to dismantle Germany.

As Wilson was recovering from the flu, many White House officials noted a change in his demeanor. Wilson was described as slow, tired, and focused on strange notions. After these odd reports, Wilson abandoned many of his ideas about the Treaty, which gave power to Clemenceau. Many argue that the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles resulted in disaster for Germany, the crippling of the German economy, and played a role in Hitler’s ability to gain power. All of this could be the result of Woodrow Wilson’s bout of the flu.



9Tuberculosis And Expansion Of Western Frontier

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Photo credit: George Caleb Bingham

During the tuberculosis outbreak of the 1900s, many believed in miasma theory, the belief that sickness is caused by bad air and pollution. The idea was promoted by Edward Trudeau, a doctor from New York who was infected with tuberculosis and, after moving to the Adirondacks, noticed an improvement in his condition. He began spreading the news that fresh air and nature were a cure.

Upon hearing this, thousands of Americans moved west in search of better health, and many campaigns for western expansion were targeted toward “health seekers.” People infected with tuberculosis migrated in large numbers with pioneers and explorers.

8Cholera And The Rise Of Epidemiology

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Photo credit: Wikimedia

In 1854, John Snow removed the handle of a water pump and created an entire branch of medicine.

Snow, a physician during the cholera epidemic in London, was suspicious of the way the disease was spreading. He rejected the miasma theory and observed how clusters of disease were popping up among people who used certain water pumps.

His intervention of removing the infected pump handle helped decrease the rates of infection during the epidemic. Additionally, he was the first to use epidemiological methods to control the spread of disease.



7Hookworm And Economic Development In The South

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Photo credit: CDC

Hookworm is a parasite that lives in the human intestine, feeds on human nutrients, and can be transmitted through fecal matter. Hookworm can cause a rash and diarrhea, but hookworm disease can lead to more chronic symptoms. In the South during the early 1900s, hookworm disease slowly rose to epidemic proportions and resulted in lethargy, iron deficiency, and stunted growth.

Over time, symptoms of hookworm helped create stereotypes about Southerners being drawling, unindustrious, or lazy. After the epidemic was identified and efforts were made to prevent infection, the South saw more children enrolling in school, better crop prices, and a rise in income.

6Tuberculosis’s Effect On Fashion

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Photo credit: Wikimedia

In the late 1800s, tuberculosis, an infectious disease of the lungs, had become an epidemic in the US and Europe. Since the disease was around for so long and killed very slowly, its qualities started to be romanticized in the Victorian era. Fashions characterized by being pale and slim became popular, and the disease itself became trendy.

When scientists learned more about the illness in the 1900s, they sparked some of the first major public health campaigns in the US. Hemlines for women’s dresses and skirts became shorter to prevent them from picking up tuberculosis on the street. Beards and mustaches were exchanged for a clean shave because of the possibility that bacteria could be living in facial hair.

5Bubonic Plague And The Catholic Church

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Photo credit: Henri Segur

The bubonic plague devastated Europe in the 14th century. One of the most lasting effects, however, was the plague’s impact on the Catholic Church, which lost significant support as massive numbers of people were dying.

Many citizens looked to the Church for answers about why the plague was killing so vigorously and what could be done to stop it. When the Church was unable to give an explanation or help, many people questioned their faith and lost confidence in God. This resulted in an era where religion became less attached to people’s lives. This also allowed for pioneering work to be done in modern medicine and progress that may not have been possible if people’s faith had been maintained or even strengthened by the plague.



4Tuberculosis And Sanatoriums

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Photo credit: Wikimedia

As the tuberculosis epidemic continued in the late 1800s, the theory of fresh air and nature as a cure for spread far and wide. This resulted in the construction of sanatoriums, facilities to give supportive care to TB patients—specifically, rest and fresh air because no other treatment was known. Patients would be sent to live in sanatoriums for years at a time, which created an entire subculture surrounding these facilities. There were many children who spent much of their childhoods there.

Patients would have to surrender their rights to undergo treatment and were forced to lay in reclining chairs, outside, with blankets piled on top of them so they could breathe the fresh air and stay warm. The resort-like characteristics promoted relaxation but was always in the shadow of death and disease.

Once antibiotics were discovered, tuberculosis could be cured almost instantly, and the need for sanatoriums disappeared.

3Smallpox And Columbian Exchange

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Smallpox can be spread by bodily fluids or objects that have been contaminated. To date, it is the only disease that has been eradicated.

In the 1500s, during the Columbian Exchange between Europe and the New World, smallpox devastated Native inhabitants, killing up to 90 percent of the population. This disease was also used as a method for biological warfare by European explorers who were colonizing the Americas. Native populations had no built up immunity to the diseases that Europeans brought over and were torn apart by the virus. Entire civilizations were wiped out, taking with them cultures, forms of art, and languages that are now lost forever.

2Yellow Fever And The Louisiana Purchase

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Photo credit: William Morris

Yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes that live in tropical climates. In the early 1800s, it played a role in the Louisiana Purchase by weakening the French army.

Napoleon, leader at the time, planned to occupy the West and expand France’s influence around the world. French troops were stationed in Haiti when Haitian slaves rebelled successfully, defeating the French military. This was due to high rates of yellow fever among French troops, which weakened them and rendered them unable to fight back. In response to this, Napoleon offered up the whole Louisiana territory.

In the end, the purchase was settled as a treaty, allowing the land to be extremely inexpensive. Without yellow fever and the Haitian Slave Rebellion, The United States may have looked very different.

1Plague Of Athens

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The Plague of Athens is an unidentified disease that struck in 400 BC, killing 25 percent of Athens’s population. While no one has confirmed what the disease was, likely candidates are smallpox and typhoid fever.

The plague took the life of Pericles, a major leader to Athenians, which damaged their ability to fight in the Peloponnesian War. Another damaging factor was the significant decrease in the population, which affected their ability to mobilize militarily. This contributed further to the loss of the Peloponnesian War, which affected the course of history by defining which groups were in power in Ancient Greece.

Sofia is a student on the east coast who is interested in diseases and history. She enjoys reading Listverse and learning new things about history, politics, but mostly just unusual facts.