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.

The History Behind 10 Thanksgiving Dishes

VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. Turkey

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as … served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. Stuffing

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. Cranberries

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. Mashed Potatoes

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting president to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. Gravy

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to create a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. Corn

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. Sweet Potatoes

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. Green Bean Casserole

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you probably know was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. Pumpkin Pie

Slice of pumpkin pie.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. Wine

Two glasses of wine.
Moncherie/iStock.com

Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

Why Do We Eat Cranberry Sauce on Thanksgiving?

MSPhotographic/iStock via Getty Images
MSPhotographic/iStock via Getty Images

While plenty of people eat turkey, mashed potatoes, and pie year-round, it seems like cranberry sauce almost exclusively exists in the Thanksgiving universe. Although we don’t know for sure whether it was eaten at the very first Thanksgiving, the jiggly, gelatinous side dish does have deep roots in the history of America’s fruited plains.

According to Insider, cranberries are one of only three commercially grown fruits native to the United States, and the Wampanoag tribe had been using them for food, dye, and medicine long before feasting with the Pilgrims in 1621. If there were cranberries at the party, they probably didn’t taste much like the sweetened sauce we’re (circumstantially) fond of today; at that point, the settlers hadn’t yet succeeded in growing sugar cane in the New World.

But a little more than 50 years later, according to a 1672 account cited by The Washington Post, the new Americans and Native Americans had both started to enjoy cranberries much like we do at Thanksgiving dinner: “Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat.”

In 1796, Amelia Simmons—author of American Cookery, the first-ever American cookbook—took it one step further by recommending that roast turkey be served with cranberry sauce. Considering that the Library of Congress included the book on its list of “Books That Shaped America,” it’s possible that Simmons’s suggestion reverberated through kitchens across the nation, and the tradition gained momentum from there. She does mention pickled mangoes as an alternate side dish for turkey, but the then-Indian import was likely less common than the locally-grown cranberry.

Then, in the early 1800s, Ocean Spray revolutionized the labor-intensive process of hand-picking cranberries from vines with what’s called a wet harvest. Basically, farmers flood the bogs where cranberries grow, and then they wade into the water to collect the floating berries en masse.

farmer wet-harvesting cranberries
A farmer gathering cranberries during a wet harvest.
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This was a more efficient technique, but a mass harvest meant that more cranberries got damaged. So in 1912, Ocean Spray began crushing them into canned, jellied cranberry sauce—maximizing the yield and making it easier than ever for every home in America to slice up a cylinder of solid, sugary, berry goodness.

Explore the stories behind your other favorite (or least favorite) Thanksgiving foods here.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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