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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

9 Unsung Heroes of the Underground Railroad

An illustration depicting fugitives along the Underground Railroad in Maryland, taken from William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad.
An illustration depicting fugitives along the Underground Railroad in Maryland, taken from William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad.
Philadelphia, Porter & Coates, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Considering that the massive network of hidden paths and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad stretched from the Deep South all the way to Canada, it makes sense that hundreds of people were involved in its operation. Some, like Harriet Tubman, were “conductors,” who led the rescue missions, while others—John Brown, for example—were “station masters,” hosting fugitives in their homes and arranging safe passage to freedom. Here are nine other valorous heroes who risked life and limb to help people on their way to liberty.

1. William Still

A sketch of William Still from Wilbur Henry Siebert and Albert Bushnell Hart's 1898 book The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom.Macmillan, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born to formerly enslaved parents in New Jersey in 1821, William Still moved to Philadelphia at age 23 and took up the abolitionist mantle in more ways than one. He taught himself to read and write, got a job as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and advanced through the organization until he was named chairman of its new Vigilance Committee in the early 1850s. In that position, Still oversaw the region’s network of safe houses—his own house among them—and raised money to finance key rescue missions, including a few of Harriet Tubman’s.

It’s estimated that Still ferried about 800 people to freedom during his tenure; one of them was his brother Peter. But there’s another reason he’s often referred to as “the Father of the Underground Railroad.” Still documented the stories of more than 600 escapees and published them all in a groundbreaking volume called The Underground Railroad in 1872, making him the only Black person ever to write and self-publish a firsthand account of activity on the Underground Railroad. He hoped that the “extraordinary determination and endeavor” exhibited in the harrowing narratives would inspire Black Americans to continue the struggle for civil rights.

“The race must not forget the rock from whence they were hewn, nor the pit from whence they were digged,” he wrote in the introduction. “Like other races, this newly emancipated people will need all the knowledge of their past condition which they can get.”

2. John P. Parker

Parker's house in Ripley, Ohio.Nyttend, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When John P. Parker was 8 years old, a merchant separated him from his enslaved mother in Norfolk, Virginia, and sold him to a doctor in Mobile, Alabama. There, Parker apprenticed at an iron foundry—and learned to read and write, with the help of the doctor’s children. At age 18, he persuaded one of the doctor’s patients to purchase him and let him gradually buy back his freedom with his foundry earnings. The plan worked, and Parker left for Ripley, Ohio, where he built a house, started a family, and patented a few popular mechanical parts for tobacco machines during a successful career as a foundryman.

Through it all, Parker made regular excursions across the Ohio River to spirit fugitives from Kentucky back to Ripley’s safe houses (one belonged to John Rankin, a prominent white abolitionist who lived less than a mile from Parker). Parker’s rescue missions were especially dangerous, partially because bounty hunters looking for fugitives knew who he was, and partially because Parker himself was dauntless. Once, an enslaver suspected a married couple would attempt to escape, so he took their baby and put him to sleep in his room. Parker snuck into the room, carefully plucked the child from the bed—where the enslaver also lay sleeping—and dashed back through the house. The enslaver awoke and tore after him, firing his pistol, but Parker and the family managed to escape across the river.

Parker recounted these rescues to journalist Frank M. Gregg during a series of interviews in the 1880s, but the manuscript sat forgotten in Duke University’s archives until historian Stuart Seeley Sprague unearthed it and published it in 1996.

3. and 4. Harriet Bell Hayden and Lewis Hayden

A portrait of Lewis Hayden from William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.The Liberator, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born enslaved in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1812, Lewis Hayden watched enslavers tear apart his family not once, but twice. First, his siblings were sold to a different enslaver; and later, his wife and son were bought by Kentucky senator Henry Clay [PDF] and sold somewhere in the Deep South. Hayden never saw them again. In the early 1840s, he married an enslaved woman named Harriet Bell, adopted her son, and soon began plotting their escape.

With the help of Calvin Fairbank, a minister, and Delia Webster, a teacher, the Haydens fled their enslaver’s estate and eventually arrived safely in Canada. By 1846, they had returned to the U.S. and settled in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, where they opened a clothing store. Before long, Lewis and Harriet had joined the Boston Vigilance Committee and turned their home into a boarding house, which became a highly trafficked stop on the Underground Railroad.

A drawing of Harriet Bell Hayden from her obituary in The Cleveland Gazette.The Cleveland Gazette, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though slavery had been illegal in Massachusetts since 1783, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stated that enslaved people who had escaped to free states could still be found and returned to their enslavers in the South. The Haydens fearlessly protected hundreds of people from bounty hunters who tried to do just that. Ellen and William Craft, for example, had garnered widespread attention for their risky escape from slavery in Georgia, which involved Ellen impersonating a white man and William posing as her Black servant. When bounty hunters pursued them to the Haydens’ house, Lewis announced that he’d readily blow up the whole property with the two kegs of gunpowder he kept inside if they tried to kidnap the Crafts. The bounty hunters didn’t chance it, and left empty-handed.

Lewis also helped recruit Black soldiers for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry—one of the Union’s first all-Black military units—and was even elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly in 1873. When he died in 1889, Boston’s city council praised him as “one of the pioneers in the freeing of this country from the curse of slavery.” Harriet, who died in 1893, donated her entire estate to Harvard Medical School for the purpose of establishing a scholarship for Black students, which still exists today.

5. Henrietta Bowers Duterte

A photo of Henrietta Bowers Duterte with one of her children.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1852, Henrietta Bowers, a 35-year-old tailor, married a Haitian-American undertaker named Francis A. Duterte. They both came from well-respected Philadelphia families, and Francis’s mortuary was successful; in other words, it should have been a long, happy union. But by the end of that decade, Henrietta was alone: Her children had all died young, and Francis had also passed away suddenly. Instead of handing the mortuary business over to a man—which would have been expected at the time—Henrietta took it over and, in addition to running the mortuary, turned it into an especially clandestine stop on the Underground Railroad.

Not only did Henrietta use funeral processions as opportunities to help disguised fugitives slip unnoticed through the city, but she also sometimes smuggled them out of Philadelphia in actual coffins. The mortuary continued to be lucrative, and Henrietta funneled the profits into organizations that served Philadelphia’s Black community, like the First Colored Church and Stephen Smith’s Philadelphia Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons. In 1866, she helped arrange the Freedman’s Aid Society Fair to support formerly enslaved people in Tennessee.

6. David Ruggles

A political cartoon depicting a slave owner raging against Ruggles and two other abolitionists who had helped one of his servants escape.Edward Williams Clay, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

David Ruggles, born free in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1810, moved to New York City at age 17 and opened a grocery shop, which he staffed with emancipated Black Americans. Before long, Ruggles pivoted to lending and selling abolitionist books, pamphlets, and newspapers, too, making him the nation’s first Black bookstore owner. In 1835, Ruggles and other local abolitionists founded the New York Vigilance Committee, an interracial organization which, like the one in Philadelphia, helped people escape from slavery. Not only did he provide legal aid to Black Americans targeted by bounty hunters, but he also housed many fugitives in his own home on Lispenard Street.

One of these temporary guests was Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and arrived in New York penniless and famished in 1838. He was rescued, he explained in his 1845 autobiography, “by the humane hand of Mr. David Ruggles, whose vigilance, kindness, and perseverance, I shall never forget.” Douglass wrote to his fiancée, Anna, who joined him within a few days, and Ruggles even arranged a marriage ceremony in the house. Soon after the wedding, Ruggles gave the couple $5 and booked their passage on a steamship to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Throughout his years as an Underground Railroad station master, Ruggles distributed countless anti-slavery publications and advocated for “practical abolitionism,” or the idea that each person should actively take part in emancipating Black Americans. He wasn’t without enemies: twice his shop was burned down, and he was physically attacked on several occasions. By his late twenties, Ruggles’s health was failing, and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child encouraged him to come live with the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a self-sufficient community in Florence, Massachusetts, that championed equal rights for all. There, Ruggles regained some of his strength through hydrotherapy, and he eventually opened his own hydrotherapy hospital, where Douglass often visited him. When he died at age 39, it was Douglass who wrote his obituary.

7. and 8. Harriet Forten Purvis and Robert Purvis

A daguerroeotype of Robert Purvis from the 1840s.Boston Public Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Robert Purvis, the son of a white man and a free Black woman, was active in practically all facets of Philadelphia’s anti-slavery movement from the 1830s through the Civil War. He helped found and lead the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia and its Vigilance Committee, which offered boarding, clothing, medical attention, legal counsel, and northern passage to fugitives; and he also worked alongside prominent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society a few years later.

Since women weren’t originally allowed to be members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Robert’s wife, Harriet Forten Purvis, joined Lucretia Mott and other activists in forming the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in December 1833. Harriet, like Mott, would go on to become a leader in the suffrage movement, too.

Robert and Harriet had both come from extremely successful and respected Philadelphia families, and they used their influence—and financial resources—to assist escapees in any way they could. Their house on Lombard Street became a well-traversed thoroughfare for fugitives heading north.

“He was President of the ‘Underground Railroad,’ and throughout that long period of peril his house was a well-known station where his horses and carriages and his personal attendance were ever at the service of the travelers upon that road,” read Robert's 1898 obituary in The New York Times.

A portrait of Harriet Forten Purvis circa 1874. ExplorePAhistory.com // Public Domain

The couple’s high-profile work sometimes made them a target for those who opposed the upward mobility of Black Americans. In August 1842, a parade celebrating the eighth anniversary of the end of slavery in the British West Indies devolved into violence when an Irish mob—resenting their own low position in society—attacked the revelers and began looting and setting fire to Black-owned buildings along the street. The rioters planned to progress to the Purvises' house, where Robert stood armed and waiting, but a Catholic priest reportedly diverted them.

After that, Robert and Harriet moved their family to a farmhouse in Byberry, a northeastern neighborhood of Philadelphia, and promptly turned their new estate into another station on the Underground Railroad. Robert approximated that between 1831 and 1861, he had helped emancipate about one person per day (though it’s possible that this calculation included his broader work with various anti-slavery organizations).

9. Samuel D. Burris

A sketch of Samuel D. Burris from William Still's book The Underground Railroad.Delaware Historical & Cultural Affairs, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Samuel D. Burris worked tirelessly during the 1840s to lead fugitives through his home state of Delaware and into Philadelphia, where he lived with his wife and children. Though Burris was a free man, he could be imprisoned and sold into slavery if caught helping fugitives in Delaware—and in 1847, he was.

Officials apprehended Burris when he was trying to smuggle a woman named Maria Matthews onto a steamship. Since they set his bail at $5000 (more than $157,000 today), he was forced to spend months in jail while awaiting trial. “They uphold and applaud those slave traffickers, and those inhuman and unmerciful leeches, in their soul-damning conduct, by making the colored people legal subjects for their bloody principles to feast on,” he wrote from his cell, in a letter that was later published in William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.

On November 2, 1847, Burris was convicted, fined $500, and sentenced to 10 more months in prison. After that, he’d be sold into slavery for 14 years. While Burris was serving his 10-month sentence, a group of Philadelphia abolitionists amassed $500 and sent a Quaker named Isaac Flint to pose as a trader and purchase Burris at the auction. Luckily, Flint ended up being the highest bidder (though according to William Still’s account in The Underground Railroad, luck had little to do with it: Flint savvily bought off a Baltimore trader who had tried to top his bid).

“[Burris] was not by any means aware of the fact that he had fallen into the hands of friends, but, on the contrary, evidently labored under the impression that his freedom was gone,” Still wrote. “The joyful news was whispered in the ear of Burris that all was right; that he had been bought with abolition gold to save him from going south.”

As Delaware State University historian Robin Krawitz told CNN, Burris continued helping fugitives after his release, and angry Delawarians actually petitioned the government to discipline him more severely. After officials enacted legislation that recommended public whipping as punishment for anyone caught a second time, Burris halted his operations in Delaware. Instead, he moved to San Francisco, where he raised funds to help newly freed people establish themselves.