6 Epidemics That Changed History

Everyone knows about the Black Death and the Spanish flu from the devastating impacts they wrought on the world. But there were other epidemics, pandemics, and disease outbreaks that changed history—some for the worse, and some, surprisingly, for the better.

1. Malaria Outbreak in the Vatican // 1623

Location: Rome
Fatalities: Eight cardinals and 30 other church officials
How it changed history: The deaths of around 38 relatively unknown people in the 17th century may have saved the lives of millions. In 1623, Catholic cardinals gathered from all over Christendom to elect a new pope—and soon succumbed to a malaria outbreak. Even the newly elected Pope Urban VIII fell ill and took two months to recover. According to legend, Urban VIII issued a decree to find a cure for the disease.

News of the deaths spread to South America, where Jesuit missionaries observed Indigenous people using the bark of the Andean cinchona tree to treat shivering and fevers, both symptoms of malaria [PDF]. Shipments of the “Peruvian bark” then arrived in Rome, where physicians successfully used it to treat malaria. In 1820, French chemists isolated quinine, its active antiprotozoal compound.

2. New England Smallpox Epidemic // 1721

Location: Boston
Fatalities: 850 people
How it changed history: In the early 18th century, influential Puritan minister Cotton Mather of Boston read a treatise on the novel practice of inoculation against smallpox. He responded to its author with his own thoughts on it. Mather had asked his African slave Onesimus if he’d ever had the disease, and he said Onesimus replied, “both, Yes, and, No; and then he told me, that he had undergone an Operation, which had given him something of the Small-Pox, & would forever praeserve him from it.”

Five years later, smallpox hit Boston. Mather began pushing for an inoculation campaign, but many of the town’s doctors and citizens disagreed on religious grounds, while others argued that it was unethical to treat healthy people with an unknown procedure. One critic even threw a bomb into Mather’s window with a note reading, “Cotton Mather, you dog, dam you! I’ll inoculate you with this; with a pox to you.” (The bomb failed to explode.) Only one physician, Zabdiel Boylston, stood by Mather: Boylston inoculated his own son and hundreds of others. At the end of the outbreak he reported, in the first clinical trial evaluated with hard data, that only 2 percent of inoculated patients died, compared to almost 15 percent of those who weren’t. According to the journal BMJ Quality & Safety, the results would guide Edward Jenner’s experiments in vaccination a few decades later. As for Onesimus, he purchased his freedom in 1716, contingent on his obligation to perform chores for Mather when needed.

3. Saint-Domingue Yellow Fever Epidemic // 1802

Location: Modern-day Haiti
Fatalities: 29,000 to 55,000 people
How it changed history: Like malaria, this mosquito-borne disease had a profound impact on the relationship between the Old and New Worlds. In 1791, slaves and other marginalized groups in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) rose up against the oppressive French government, launching the Haitian Revolution. Eleven years later, Napoleon Bonaparte sent his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc and 60,000 troops to restore order. But the French troops began dying by the thousands from yellow fever, with relatively few ever dying in battle—which may have been by design.

Haitian general Toussaint Louverture, one of the revolutionary leaders, wrote to his lieutenant Jean-Jacques Dessalines, “Do not forget that while waiting for the rainy season, which will rid us of our enemies, we have only destruction and fire as weapons.” He knew the seasonal yellow fever outbreaks would weaken the French army. In fact, yellow fever would kill most of the French soldiers, including Leclerc, and helped ensure Haiti’s independence from France.

However, some historians propose that Haiti was just assembly point for the massive array of French troops. The island could have served as a staging area for an expedition to reassert control over Louisiana, which had been given to Spain in 1762 and reacquired by France between 1800 and 1802. But likely as a result of the French defeat in Haiti, Napoleon proclaimed, “I renounce Louisiana. It is not only New Orleans I will cede,—it is the whole colony without any reservation.” The U.S. purchase of Louisiana in 1803 would double the size of the young nation.

4. Third Cholera Pandemic // Mid-19th Century

Location: Worldwide
Fatalities: Hundreds of thousands to more than a million
How it changed history: The third cholera epidemic (which lasted from 1846-1863 or from 1839-1856, depending on the source) is best remembered for two history-changing events that occurred in 1854.

In London’s Soho neighborhood, the cholera outbreak lead to the deaths of 616 people. At the time, most thought cholera was transmitted by foul air (known as the miasma theory). A local anesthesiologist named John Snow had the then-radical idea that cholera was spread by some microscopic organism. He began mapping the location of the neighborhood’s water pumps and the casualties in the outbreak, and noticed they were centered around a pump on the corner of Broad and Cambridge streets (now Broadwick and Lexington streets). His map convinced the local council to remove the pump’s handle, and the number of deaths plummeted. Snow’s investigation became a pivotal moment in fields ranging from epidemiology to data visualization to urban planning. But Snow was never able to identify what caused the outbreak, and likely remained unaware of someone who did.

That same year, when cholera arrived in Florence, anatomist Filippo Pacini performed autopsies on victims and noticed odd microscopic particles that he called vibrions [PDF]. He published his findings, but they were ignored. In the 1880s, German microbiologist Robert Koch rediscovered that the vibrions, present in the intestines of the cholera victims but not healthy people, were actually bacteria that caused the disease. His research into bacteria overcame intense opposition [PDF] and changed how we diagnose and treat diseases. But Pacini hasn’t been ignored—in 1966 the International Committee on Nomenclature officially recognized Pacini’s prior discovery [PDF].

4. Fijian Measles Outbreak // 1875

Location: Fiji
Fatalities: 40,000 people
How it changed history: In tourism brochures, the South Pacific nation of Fiji seems like a placid paradise—but the islands have been roiled by a series of coups d’état that began in part with a virulent virus. In January 1875, the Royal Navy sloop HMS Dido brought the powerful Fijian chief Cakobau and his family back home from a state visit to Australia. But Cakobau contracted measles, and despite recovering, infected his sons. Authorities failed to securely quarantine the ship, so when the Dido arrived in Fiji, its passengers debarked and met chiefs from surrounding islands, who then returned home and spread the infection with startling rapidity. The population of Fiji before the outbreak was around 150,000; by its conclusion in June 1875, roughly 40,000 people had died.

Many Fijians felt the epidemic was a deliberate act by the British government—Cakobau had agreed to make Fiji a British Crown Colony in 1874—and staged an armed rebellion. Possibly as a result of the population decline, British colonists were able to seize Fijian-owned property and brought in Indian indentured servants, who grew into a sizable minority of the population. Soon after achieving independence from the United Kingdom in 1970, “intra-country clashes between political parties representing the majority ethnic Fijian population and ethnic minority communities, most notably Indo-Fijian, led to a military coup d’état,” according to the U.S. State Department. “This was the beginning of what many now refer to as the ‘coup cycle.’”

5. African Rinderpest Outbreak // 1890s

Location: Eastern Africa
Fatalities: Millions of cattle and an unknown number of people
How it changed history: Not all diseases that affect humanity are human diseases: The livestock infection rinderpest led to war, colonialism, and a permanent change of life for much of Africa.

In cattle and other ungulates, rinderpest can have fatality rates in the 90 percent range. The disease never traveled farther south than Egypt until sometime around 1887 when, according to the most popular theory, infected cattle were sent to Italy’s colony in modern-day Eritrea. Cattle began dying by the thousands, and the price for those that survived soared. Some also traded infected hides for food with the long-distance caravans passing through the area, which might have exposed the population to smallpox.

The outbreak has been called “the most catastrophic natural disaster ever to affect Africa” [PDF]. Rinderpest (and smallpox) nearly destroyed the Maasai way of life, the loss of livestock disrupted the traditional means of agriculture, and economic woes forced African landowners to sell their properties. These forces destabilized eastern Africa and allowed European colonialism to take over. The societal upheaval contributed to the Boer War and Matabele War at the turn of the 20th century, while the decimation of much of the continent’s load-pulling oxen spurred the rate of railway construction.

Eventually, quarantines would contain the worst rinderpest outbreaks, though as recently as the 1980s Nigeria lost $2 billion to the disease. In 2011, after decades of work, rinderpest was declared officially eradicated.

6. U.S. Salmonella Outbreak // 1994

Location: United States
Fatalities: Zero dead, 224,000 people infected
How it changed history: Just 25 years ago, the largest outbreak of food-borne illness in history changed the way manufacturers handled food recalls, potentially saving the lives of millions. In 1994, a tanker truck carried unpasteurized liquid egg to a manufacturing facility, and then returned to its headquarters in Minnesota. Before it picked up its next load—ice cream premix for the food company Schwan’s—the tank should have been completely sanitized. It wasn’t. The truck, and its sweet cargo, were contaminated with Salmonella, which eventually spread throughout the entire ice cream production system. An estimated 224,000 consumers in 35 states were infected.

Perhaps afraid of encountering the same blowback that burger chain Jack in the Box received after its response to the deadly E. coli outbreak in 1993, Schwan’s response was so swift and decisive that it became the textbook example for positive crisis management [PDF]. Schwan’s recalled the ice cream before it was sure the product was at fault, shut down the factory, took out advertising to advise people not to eat the ice cream, instituted a 24-hour consumer hotline, and even offered to pay for diagnostic medical exams. “In the process of managing its way through the outbreak, Schwan’s blazed a new trail for what it takes to be a responsible company with a national recall,” Food Safety News noted in 2009.

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

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65 Years Later: 10 Fascinating Facts About the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Associated Press // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Montgomery bus boycott is remembered as one of the earliest mass civil rights protests in American history. It's also the event that helped to make both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. household names when, enraged with the way Black Americans were treated, they helped organize and carry out the boycott, which lasted more than a year.

On December 1, 1955, a segregation-weary Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white rider, an action that led to her arrest. Her trial began just a few days later, on December 5, 1955, which marked the beginning of the 381-day boycott that led to the desegregation of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. On the 65th anniversary of this historic event, read on to learn more about the people behind the headlines and the unsung heroes of this revolutionary event.

1. Rosa Parks was a lifelong activist.

Rosa Parks is sometimes portrayed as someone who first stood up to power on December 1, 1955. Quite the contrary. “She was not a stranger to activism and civil rights,” Madeline Burkhardt, adult education coordinator at The Rosa Parks Museum and Library, tells Mental Floss. Parks and her husband Raymond were active in the local and state chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She had served as secretary of both branches, during which time she investigated sexual assault cases.

“She was an assertive Black woman against racism, though in a quiet way,” Dr. Dorothy Autrey, retired chair of the history department at Alabama State University, tells Mental Floss. “It’s a myth that she was physically tired that day [she was arrested on the bus], but she was tired of seeing racism against her people.”

After the Montgomery bus boycott, Parks participated in the 1963 March on Washington and went on to serve on the board of Planned Parenthood. She received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

2. Rosa Parks was arrested twice.

Parks was initially arrested on December 1, 1955, for violating bus segregation laws. However, this wasn’t her most photographed arrest. Her famous mugshot and those pictures of her being fingerprinted (including the one seen above) are from during her second arrest, in February 1956.

Local police issued warrants for the arrest of Parks along with 88 other boycott leaders for organizing to cause the bus company financial harm. The protests had a mighty financial impact; according to Burkhardt, the protest led to losses of approximately $3000 a day, which would be the equivalent of $28,000 a day in 2020. The organizers dressed in their Sunday best, took a photo in front of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, then turned themselves in.

3. Rosa Parks wasn’t the first—or only—person arrested for disrupting bus segregation.

On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on the bus to a white woman in Montgomery, Alabama.The Visibility Project // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Nine months before Parks made headlines, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white woman. Civil rights organizers didn’t initially hold Colvin up as a movement figurehead because the unmarried teen became pregnant shortly after her arrest. However, leaders later revisited her case, and she became one of five plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the federal court case that ultimately overturned segregation laws on Montgomery buses and ended the boycott on December 20, 1956. Parks wasn’t one of the plaintiffs, but several other local women were, including Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese (though Reese later withdrew).

4. Rosa Parks had a previous run-in with bus driver James F. Blake.

In 1943, Parks got onto a bus James F. Blake was driving and paid her fare at the front. As she began walking down the aisle of the bus to make her way to the Black seating section at the back (instead of exiting the bus and re-entering through another door as was required), the driver forced her off the bus and pulled away before she could re-board. Blake was driving the bus Parks boarded on December 1, when she refused to give up her seat.

5. Although ministers are often celebrated as the boycott’s organizers, women were behind the initial protest.

Indoors at the National Civil Rights Museum stands a recreation of the bright yellow Montgomery city bus where Rosa Parks defied the city's segregated bus transport policy. Location: Location: memphis, Tennessee (35.135° N 90.058° W) Status: Courtesy of the National Civil Rights Museum // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson caught wind of Parks’s arrest, she and the Women’s Political Council (WPC) jumped into action. A bus driver had verbally assaulted Robinson shortly after she moved to Montgomery to teach, so when she became president of the WPC, a local Black women’s professional organization that fostered civic engagement, she made bus desegregation a priority.

They hand-cranked 52,000 mimeographed political flyers in one night to advertise the planned boycott. Robinson initially asked citizens to protest for one day, Dr. Autrey says. “They weren’t sure where the boycott would lead. They had no idea it would last over a year.” However, local ministers and the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that formed to oversee the protests, took up the mantle and helped the boycott last.

6. The turnout in Montgomery was massive.

More than 45,000 people, representing 90 percent of the Black community in Montgomery at the time, participated in the boycott. “Even with social media today, I don’t think we would ever have the level of organization they were able to get from flyers and church sermons,” Burkhardt says.

7. Initially, the protestors weren't looking for Montgomery to desegregate its public transportation system.

The boycott organizers' demands didn’t require changing segregation laws—at first. Initially, the group was demanding seemingly simple courtesies, such as hiring Black drivers and having the buses stop on every corner in Black neighborhoods (just as they did in white neighborhoods). The also asked that white passengers fill the bus from the front and Black passengers from the back, so that Black passengers weren’t forced into standing-room only sections while white sections remained sparsely seated. Those goals gradually changed as the boycott continued and Browder v. Gayle moved through the federal and supreme courts.

8. Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 when he joined the movement.

John Goodwin/Getty Images

King was a relative newcomer when he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), an organization founded on the same Christian principles of nonviolence that guided King throughout his career. His principles were put to an early test when an unknown white supremacist bombed his home on January 30, 1956. (Fortunately, no one was harmed.) King was chosen because he was largely unknown, unlike E.D. Nixon, the local NAACP leader, who was instrumental in organizing the community, but who also had a long history of confrontations with local politicians.

9. Carpools and underground food sales helped fund the boycott.

To help people avoid taking buses, Montgomery churches organized carpools. They purchased several station wagons to help with the operation, dubbing them “rolling churches.” However, local insurance companies wouldn’t provide coverage as they didn't want to support the protests, even indirectly. Instead, King found insurance through Lloyd’s of London, which, ironically, had once insured ships that carried enslaved people during 18th- and 19th-century ocean crossings.

Funding to buy these vehicles, insurance, and gas came from across the community, including from Georgia Gilmore, a cook who organized an informal diner called the Club from Nowhere to feed boycotters and raise money.

10. Working-class Black women were instrumental in the boycott’s success.

At the time of the boycott, Rosa Parks worked was a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store, and she was hardly the only working-class woman who made the boycott a success. “Were it not for maids, cooks, and nannies, the boycott would not have succeeded,” Dr. Autrey says. “They were the primary riders, and they also received the brunt of the hostile treatment. These women were fed up and were primed to take a role in the boycott.”

Many women walked miles to work instead of riding the bus or even carpooling. When a reporter asked one such woman, Mother Pollard, if she was tired, she responded, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”

Though the Montgomery bus boycott ended more than 60 years ago, the effects of the movement are still felt—and honored—today. Beginning this month, a new initiative—spearheaded by Steven L. Reed, Montgomery’s first Black mayor—the city will be reserving one seat on every Montgomery bus in Rosa Parks’s honor.