Bathroom Breaks That Changed History

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History

Shannon Quinn - November 19, 2022

As the saying goes, “everybody poops”. Human beings spend a lot of time in the bathroom on a daily basis. So it’s no surprise that throughout history, there have been some incredibly important moments while people were on the toilet. Here is a collection of stories of historically memorable events that have something to do with the bathroom.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
A young Lyndon B. Johnson. Credit: History Collection

A Bathroom Break Saved Lyndon B. Johnson’s Life

President Lyndon B. Johnson wasn’t the most popular politician in the world, but his achievements are mixed. Johnson was responsible for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. But he was also blamed for putting Americans through the Vietnam War. Before he became President, he was a young sailor in the Navy. On June 9, 1942, he was assigned to fly a B26 Marauder airplane, nicknamed the “Wabash Cannonball.” Just before takeoff, he had to use the bathroom. When he came back, Lieutenant Colonel Francis R. Stevens took Johnson’s seat. He was forced to take the next flight, the “Heckling Hare.” Johnson was incredibly lucky, because Heckling Hare saw very little combat. But the Wabash Cannonball was shot down by the Japanese, killing everyone on board. This means that a bathroom break very literally saved his life and changed American History.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
King George II of England died when he was on the toilet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The King Who Died on the Toilet After Drinking Hot Chocolate

King George II of England reigned from 1727 to 1760. On October 25, 1760, King George II had just finished a delicious cup of hot chocolate, and went to use the bathroom in Kensington Palace. He was straining so hard that he had an aortic aneurysm. Doctors could not save him, because he was dead just moments after sitting on the toilet. After studying his body extensively, they diagnosed him with an “aortic dissection.” An aortic dissection is a serious condition in which a tear occurs in the inner layer of the body’s main artery (aorta). Blood rushes through the tear, causing the inner and middle layers of the aorta to split. This would later go on to help diagnose and prevent deaths for thousands of people who were suffering with the same problem.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
The discovery that helped people with diabetes happened when walking a dog. Credit: Shutterstock

One Scientist’s Bet Helped to Treat Diabetes

In 1899, Dr. Oskar Minkowski ran into his colleague Josef von Mering at the university library. The two got into a debate over the pancreas. They disagreed if someone could survive without their pancreas or not. Dr. Minkowski believed so strongly that people could survive without it, that he removed his dog’s pancreas. At first, the dog appeared to be fine. But then Minkowski realized that flies were starting to surround his dog’s pee when he took him for a walk. After studying the urine, he realized that it was now full of sugar, and the dog had become a diabetic. Because of this, scientists were able to realize that the pancreas secretes insulin.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
We have OSHA to thank for having the right to a bathroom break at work. Credit: Shutterstock

In the 90’s, OSHA Saved Worker’s Rights to Use the Bathroom

For most of history, workers were not allowed to take bathroom breaks whenever nature called. Henry Ford was once quoted calling the digestive system the “disassembly line.” The Jim Beam distillery even forced women to report when it was their time of the month, since bathroom breaks were meticulously tracked on a spreadsheet. In 1998, OSHA finally made it a law that workers should have the right to access the bathroom, unless there is a reasonable reason to temporarily delay them.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus (1771) by Joseph Wright. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bathroom Breaks Helped Discover Phosphorus

Hennig Brand was a German 17th century Alchemist. The ultimate goal of alchemists was to figure out a way to change base metals into gold. They were also trying to find the philosopher’s stone, which was supposed to grant its user immortality. In 1669, Brand collected a whopping 1,500 gallons of urine from everyone he knew. He baked and boiled the urine to see what was left once the liquid had evaporated. The point in this was because water was necessary for life, and he wanted to see what happened to water once it passed through a person. He believed that he might find a key to eternal life. What he found instead was a white powder that glowed in the dark. This was phosphorus.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Douglas Engelbart invented the first computer mouse. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Bathroom Break Helped Invent Modern Computing

Douglas Engelbart was an engineer and inventor who was an early pioneer of the internet. He was the head of the Augmented Human Intellect Research Center at the Stanford Research Institute. Like many engineers in the field, Douglas decided to experiment with LSD. One day, when he was high, he invented something called the “tinkle toy”. This was a miniature water wheel that could be installed on the side of a toilet to help encourage young children who were potty training. During another LSD trip, he conceived of what would be the modern-day computer, even though he didn’t invent it. But he actually did invent the computer mouse.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
National Revolutionary Army soldiers during the 1938 Yellow River flood. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One Soldier’s Bathroom Break Started a War

On July 7, 1937, Japan and China were on the brink of war. The Japanese Imperial Army surrounded the Chinese city of Wanping. A private named Shimura Kikujiro had to use the bathroom, so he broke ranks in order to duck into the woods to relieve himself. Unfortunately for him, his unit had left by the time he finished. He became lost in the dark, and couldn’t find his way back. Meanwhile, the Japanese officers realized that they had a missing soldier, and started to panic. They sent troops back to Wanping, and demanded to be let inside to find their missing soldier. When the Chinese refused to let them enter, the Japanese tried to breach the city walls. This was later called “The Marco Polo Bridge Incident”, and it started the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
A spring ball in Paris. Credit: History Collection

The First Gendered Bathroom Appeared at a Paris Ball

The very first gendered bathroom to be documented in written history was at a Parisian ball in 1739. At the time, the guests thought that this was rather eccentric and fun. Gendered bathrooms emerged in the Victorian era , when widespread plumbing was just beginning to appear. Unfortunately, a lot of facilities would only provide male-only restrooms. This encouraged women to stay home, or they had to hide going to the bathroom under their skirts by relieving themselves in the gutter. It wasn’t until 1887 that Massachusetts passed a law demanding that employers provide female bathrooms for their workers. It finally became normal to have both men and women’s bathrooms in the 1920’s.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Archimedes apparently figured out one of his biggest discoveries in the bath tub. Credit: Live Science

The Bath That Led to an Important Discovery

This next one isn’t a “bathroom break” in the sense of relieving yourself, but it was still a huge historic event that took place in a bathroom. In ancient Greece, Archimedes was challenged to figure out if a crown made for the King of Syracuse was pure gold or not. He thought long and hard but could not find a method for proving that the crown was not solid gold. Soon after, he filled a bathtub and noticed that water spilled over the edge as he got in. He realized that the water displaced by his body was equal to the weight of his body. This became known as the “Archimedes Principle”. As the legend goes, Archimedes was so excited by his discovery, that he jumped out of the bathtub and ran down the street naked shouting, “Eureka!” about his discovery.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
William Lawrence Bragg in 1907. Credit: Loredana Crupi

The Bathroom Break That Won a War

During World War I, a mathematician and physicist named William Lawrence Bragg was stationed in France. In 1915, Bragg was using a military outhouse that was totally closed off to the outside world, except for a pipe that reached down to the ground. While he was sitting on the toilet, a gun was fired 1,000 feet away. The energy traveled through the air, and up the pipe- right up Bragg’s bottom. He eventually realized that this energy came from the gun’s low-frequency infrasound. After this discovery, it dawned on him that each weapon had a unique frequency. He created a small empty wooden ammunition box with a thin platinum wire that could detect infrasound. With this, he was able to pinpoint the exact location of enemy weapons within 150 feet. This helped the Allies win the war.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Elvis Presley with President Nixon. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“The King” Elvis Presley Died on the Toilet

Elvis Presley is remembered as the King of Rock and Roll. In August 1977, Elvis Presley was just 42 years old, but his drug habit made him look much older. He was on the toilet reading a book called The Scientific Search For The Face Of Jesus. His official cause of death will remain a mystery until records are declassified in 2027. But most historians believe that it was cardiac arrhythmia. Some sources online claim that Elvis was constipated for 4 months leading up to his death due to his drug use. And by straining on the toilet, it caused him to have a heart attack. Of course, there are conspiracy theorists out there who believe that he faked his own death in order to escape the limelight.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
The opulent ladies’ restroom at the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. Photographer: Library of Congress

The Sexist History of Women’s Restroom Lounges

If you’re a woman, and you’ve ever gone to a fancy old building, you may have experienced encountering a restroom lounge. These usually have a seating area for ladies to rest and recuperate while they shop, or it gives us a place to privately chat with friends during a social gathering. However, the history of their origin is actually rather sexist. The 1851 Great Exhibition in London was the first major event to have public bathrooms. Apparently, these lounges were designed like living rooms to help “protect a woman’s virtue”. Women were seen as being mostly home-bound, and their delicate nature would require a place for them to escape and feel like home. In fact, these lounges were around long before there was even a public toilet.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Isaac Woodard was blinded due to police brutality. Credit: Time Magazine

The Bathroom Break That Helped End Segregation

On February 12, 1946, a 26-year-old African American veteran named Sergeant Isaac Woodard had just returned home from fighting in World War II. Isaac boarded a Greyhound bus to go to his home in Winnsboro, South Carolina. On the way, Isaac asked the driver if he could pull over for a rest stop. For some reason, this infuriated the driver, and he called the police on Isaac. When they arrived, the police beat him and gouged his eyes. He ended up in the hospital for three days, and became permanently blind. This story got national attention, and people were horrified by the injustice that Isaac experienced, and it inspired many people to get involved with the desegregation movement. Two years later, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which ended segregation.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Steve Jobs holding an iPhone in 2010. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Steve Jobs Coped With His Stress in the Bathroom

Steve Jobs was the founder of Apple, and he has gone down in history as being one of the most innovative CEO’s of all time. After his death, there are already several films made about his life story. But a story that many people don’t know is the fact that Steve Jobs would soak his feet in the toilet water of the Apple bathrooms in order to de-stress. Yes, this is disgusting, and rather impractical. Couldn’t he have set up a small feet soaking tub somewhere around the office instead? As weird and eccentric as it might be, it seems like it worked, since Apple is still one of the biggest companies in the world to this day.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Charlie Wilson posing with Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Dog’s Potty Breaks Lead to 9/11

The year is 1946, and a 13-year old boy named Charlie Wilson was struggling to keep his dog under control. The dog was always going over to the neighbor’s yard and peeing in the flowers. This made the neighbor angry, so he put broken glass in the dog’s food bowl, which killed him. Charlie swore to take revenge on his neighbor, Texas Councilman Charles Hazard. Young Charlie went to his neighbors door-to-door telling them what happened to his dog, so that no one would vote for Charles Hazard. It worked, and he lost the election. Years later, Charlie Wilson grew up to get involved in politics. He was responsible for funneling funds and training for the Afghan Mujahideen. The sect soon broke off into splinter groups, including the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. So, a dog’s potty break eventually led to the terrors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Ad campaigns promising clean bathrooms in American gas stations. Credit: CNN

Gas Station Bathrooms Used to be Spotless

Nowadays, people dread using gas station bathrooms. They’re some of the dirtiest places on the planet, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone actually bothers to clean them. (Unless you’re going somewhere like Wawa.) Believe it or not, gas stations once promised sparkling clean bathrooms for people to use. In the early 1900’s, gas stations even had billboards and colored ads saying things like “Registered Rest Rooms” and “Clean Restroom Crusade”. This campaign was actually aimed at women, who were traveling with their families and filling up the gas tank. But as time went on, gas stations relaxed a bit too much with their clean bathrooms, and it’s been a slippery slope ever since.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
King Edmund Ironside ruled England briefly. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

King Edmund Ironside Was Stabbed to Death on the Toilet

If you have never heard of England’s King Edmund Ironside, it may be because he only reigned for a very short amount of time- from April 23 to November 30, 1016. No one expected him to be King. But when his father and two older brothers died, Edmund inherited the throne at a time when England was at war with Denmark. During his reign, he fought several battles in the war, and thus gained a lot of enemies. On November 30, 1016, Edmund was in London, and he had to use the toilet, or “privy” as it was called back then. He was stabbed with a sword while defecating, and killed from his wounds.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Dr. Nakamats surrounded by his achievements. Credit: Great Big Story

Japanese Inventor Dr. NakaMats Does His Best Work in a Golden Bathroom

Dr. NakaMats goes down in history for being one of the most prolific inventors of all time, with over 3,572 patents under his name. One of his biggest claims to fame is the floppy disk, which he patented in 1952. IBM tries to dispute this, saying that they were the ones who first invented it in 1969. Some of his other brilliant inventions were the CD, the DVD, the fax machine, the taxi meter, the digital watch, and the karaoke machine. He is incredibly famous in Japan, even though few people in the rest of the world know who he is. According to Celebrity Net Worth, Dr. NakaMats has a net worth of $50 million. He made so much money, that he installed a gold-plated bathroom in his home, because it’s the one room of his house where he did the most inventing.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Ancient Roman toilets made of marble. Credit: Smithsonian Magazine

Public Toilets in Ancient Rome Didn’t Give People Much Privacy

In ancient Rome, people sat on long white marble benches with holes on them, and used it as a public bathroom. There were no privacy partitions like there are today. Rather, people sat right next to each other. Back then, people wore togas, so their body was protected already. (It’s not like they were pulling pants down.) Underneath the bench was a stone-lined gutter. Unfortunately, this would have been a great place for vermin to run around like rats, snakes, and spiders. Back then, these public toilets would have been incredibly dirty. Members of the upper-class would avoid using them at all costs. These toilets were meant to be used by men, and were only installed in areas of the city where men were working. The Romans had a working sewer system, which helped to remove waste from cities efficiently.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
King William III and his velvet-lined toilet stool. Credit: Atlas Obscura

The Groom of the Stool’s Job Was to Talk to the King on the Toilet

A lot of people like to occupy themselves when they’re on the toilet by either reading a magazine or scrolling through their phone. Throughout history, there wasn’t much for people to do while they pooped. From the 1500’s to the 1700’s, British Kings appointed servants called the “Groom of the Stool” to talk with them while they sat on the toilet. Believe it or not, this was a highly coveted position in the royal court. They were able to talk to the King on a daily basis, and give advice when it came to important matters in the kingdom. Of course, it was also part of the job to make sure the King’s velvet-lined toilet stool was clean and ready for him to use. They also had to help the King bathe, get dressed, and even worked on some secretarial duties throughout the day.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Portrait of Bridget Holmes by John Riley. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One Chambermaid Became Famous For Cleaning The Toilets of Five Consecutive Royal Reigns

A woman named Bridget Holmes worked as a domestic servant for the English royal family throughout the 17th Century. One of her main jobs was to clean out the chamber pots of the royals. She worked for Charles I, Charles II, James II, and William III and Mary II. Jobs like this are normally thankless, but Bridget Holmes was honored by having her portrait painted by an artist named John Riley in 1686. This was a huge honor, since portraits were usually only made for incredibly rich people and members of royalty. Bridget died when she was 100 years old, and she was honored by being allowed to be buried in Westminster Abbey.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Sir John Harington and his sketch of the first flushing toilet. Credit:Wikimedia Commons

The Invention of the First Flushing Toilet

One of the most important things about modern toilets is that they flush. After all, we need to keep them clean. ​​The first mention of a flushing toilet came from Sir John Harington in 1596. He was the godson of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Harington’s device included a 2-foot-deep oval bowl. It was waterproofed, and fed by water from an upstairs cistern. This design required 7.5 gallons of water to flush. Since this was before indoor plumbing, Harington suggested that up to 20 people could use the toilet before it was time to flush. He even installed a working version of the flushing toilet for Queen Elizabeth at Richmond Palace.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Circa 1955: A baby sits on a toilet and pulls toilet paper from a roll. Credit: Mac Gramlich

Toilet Paper Was Invented in Ancient China, And It Took An Incredibly Long Time For The Rest of the World to Catch Up

Toilet paper is something that people rely on every single day. But it wasn’t always around. In fact, for the longest time, the western world had to come up with other creative solutions to cleaning themselves. They used sea shells, sponges attached to sticks, leaves, and newspapers to clean themselves. The first written account of toilet paper came from ancient China in 589 A.D from a scholar named Yen Chih-Thui. He wrote, “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” In the 14th century, the Chinese manufactured 10 million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets annually. In 1393, thousands of perfumed paper sheets were also produced for the Hongwu Emperor’s imperial family. Mass produced toilet paper as we know it today didn’t come around until the 1800’s.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
A women’s public restroom from the 1950’s. Credit: The Week

The History of Workplace Bathrooms

When factories first started cropping up in England in the 1800’s, factories didn’t have actual bathrooms for their employees. They would provide an area outside where people could relieve themselves. To be fair, this wasn’t much different than what people had available to them at home. For the longest time, there were only male bathrooms. In 1919, the UK law changed to end discrimination against hiring women. However, many of these factories used the excuse that they didn’t have space for a female bathroom, and therefore couldn’t hire women. It wasn’t until 1974 that the law changed, demanding that there need to be both male and female toilets.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
An illustration depicting a woman tossing her waste out of the window. Credit: Ancient Origins

People in the Middle Ages Tossed Their Waste Out in the Streets

There is a popular idea that in the middle ages, people tossed their waste out of the window. While we can’t prove that this happened often, what we can look at are some of the written laws that were passed during this time. For example, in the early 14th century, tossing anything out your window into the streets of London meant that you would have to pay a 40p fine. With modern inflation, that’s closer to $142. Around that same time, there was a case of a woman named Alice Wade who connected a pipe from her privy to the outside gutter. This would get stopped up with filth, and smell so horrible that her neighbors complained. She was ordered to remove it.

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
A 5th-century mosaic in the Great Palace of Constantinople depicts two gladiators fighting a tiger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Gladiator Once Killed Himself With a Toilet Brush

Being a gladiator was a tough gig. They were prisoners who were forced to fight to the death. Seneca the Younger wrote about this story, “In a training academy for gladiators who work with wild beasts, a German slave, while preparing for the morning exhibition, withdrew in order to relieve himself – the only thing he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood tipped with a sponge, devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it down his throat. Thus he blocked up his windpipe and choked the breath from his body… What a brave fellow. He surely deserved to be allowed to choose his fate.”

Bathroom Breaks That Changed History
Thomas Crapper has several patents associated with plumbing. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Crapper Helped Design The Modern “Crapper”

At first, the name “Crapper” sounds like a joke about poop. But there truly was an inventor named Thomas Crapper. He is often mistaken as the inventor of the flushing toilet. We already mentioned earlier that the credit actually goes to Sir John Harington in 1596. He held 9 plumbing patents associated with toilets and sewers, including water closets (early flush toilets), manhole covers, pipe joints, and drain improvements. Crapper opened the first bathroom showroom in 1870, where people could test out different toilets they could buy for their homes. He also worked as the royal plumber, visiting various palaces to help fix any problems they may have had with their toilets.


How did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

How a Luckily Timed Bathroom Break Saved LBJ’s Life During WWII. History. 2019.

Designers on acid: the tripping Californians who paved the way to our touchscreen world. Oliver Wainwright. The Guardian. 2017.

Milestones in the history of diabetes mellitus: The main contributors. National Library of Medicine. 2016.

Lavatory and Liberty: The Secret History of the Bathroom Break. Corey Robin. 2012.

The Weird History of Gender-Segregated Bathrooms. Stephanie Pappas. Live Science. 2016.

Phosphorus Starts With Pee In This Tale Of Scientific Serendipity. NPR. 2016.

The Glamorous, Sexist History of the Women’s Restroom Lounge. Elizabeth Yuko. Bloomberg. 2018.

10 Bathroom Breaks That Changed History. Nate Yungman. Listverse. 2022.

Believe it or not, gas station bathrooms used to be squeaky clean. Here’s what changed. Nathaniel Meyersohn. CNN Business. 2022.

A Brief (and Very British) History of Workplace Bathrooms. Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. Topic. 2018

It Was Once Someone’s Job to Chat With the King While He Used the Toilet. Natalie Zarrelli. Atlas Obscura. 2017.