Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks

Larry Holzwarth - April 22, 2020

Stories of the past include disease outbreaks which tormented humanity throughout history. How some reacted to them are inspirational, for others tragic. Disease outbreaks changed the story of humanity, affecting wars, international boundaries, lifestyles, and inevitably politics. Sickness ravaged armies and nations, small communities and large empires, and crossed oceans and seas. In North and South America, epidemics destroyed whole nations of Indian tribes. Disease outbreaks swept every corner of the globe, changing populations and civilizations, often destroying whole cultures. They entered humble abodes and great castles and estates including the lives of famous people who suffered from historic disease outbreaks.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Teddy Roosevelt contracted malaria while on an expedition to South America. Wikimedia

Disease outbreaks such as typhus, cholera, yellow fever, influenza, smallpox, and many others altered national governments. Yellow fever once forced the United States government to abandon the capital city of Philadelphia in summer, 1793. President Washington was removed to his home at Mount Vernon, and the Congress fled the city, leaving the young nation without an effective government for several months. Washington did not return to the President’s House in the city until near the end of the year, after the fever had run its course, and the cold killed the mosquitoes who transmitted the disease. By then 10% of the population of America’s largest city died. Here is a list of famous people who suffered from historic disease outbreaks, and how they changed history.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
George Washington contracted smallpox in his youth, which informed his opinion when he commanded the Continental Army. Wikimedia

1. George Washington contracted smallpox as a youth

Smallpox outbreaks in Great Britain and Europe were common, almost annual, affairs in the early 18th century. In America, outside the coastal cities of Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston, it remained relatively rare. Rural communities and distances between them prevented the disease from spreading through contagion. In Virginia, smallpox outbreaks did not occur before 1747, according to colonial records. In 1751, 19-year-old George Washington traveled to Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence, a trip made for the latter’s health as he battled what was known at the time as consumption (tuberculosis). While in Barbados George contracted smallpox, which left him deathly ill for over a month.

Washington recovered, and the memory of his battle with the disease remained with him, the pockmarks on his face a daily reminder. He also carried knowledge of the disease’s lethality, and its highly contagious nature. Twenty-five years later his experience drove him to order the troops under his command inoculated against the disease if they had not acquired natural immunity from an earlier attack. Washington thus became an innovator in protecting the health of his army from smallpox. He ordered the civilian camp followers attached to his troops to comply with the directive as well. Eventually, Washington commanded all new recruits to be inoculated, which gave them a milder form of the disease for a shorter duration, while they were being trained and equipped.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted Spanish Flu during the 1918-20 pandemic. Wikimedia

2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Spanish Flu

In his role as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Europe in 1918. His mission included inspections of naval and port facilities and coordination with officials of the British, French, and Italian navies. He departed Europe for America aboard USS Leviathan, a converted ocean liner serving as a troopship in September. The ship had delivered members of the American Expeditionary Force to France. On the return voyage, influenza which appeared in the United States earlier in the summer broke out in the ship, killing several of the crew during the eleven-day voyage. FDR contracted influenza during the voyage.

FDR’s fabled luck held, and he recovered from the worst of the disease before Leviathan arrived in the United States. He remained weak and relatively frail for several weeks following his bout with the flu, which killed upwards of 50 million (some say 100 million) people around the world from 1918-1920. The attack of the flu led Roosevelt to adopt the ideas of the temperance movement, and he supported Prohibition during the presidential campaign of 1920. Ironically, after his bout with another disease of gigantic proportion – polio – FDR became a fervent anti-prohibitionist, running on a campaign which supported repeal of the 18th Amendment and ending Prohibition as the law of the land in 1932.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
FDR in the pool in Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1928. Wikimedia

3. FDR and polio

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, outbreaks of polio grew into frightening numbers in the United States and Europe. Caused by a virus, polio became a feared disease when outbreaks in crowded areas of cities reached biblical proportions, often in the summer months. Caused by contact with water contaminated by fecal matter, it became a serious health problem as America’s waters became dumping grounds for raw sewage. In 1921, FDR vacationed in Campobello. While there, he developed symptoms consistent with polio, including high fever and paralysis which moved slowly up his legs. The doctors diagnosed him with polio, and he remained paralyzed from his waist down for the rest of his life, relegated to a wheelchair.

More recently doctors diagnosed FDR with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, rather than polio, but FDR didn’t know that; his doctors never considered such a diagnosis. For the rest of his life, he battled polio, both personally by swimming and taking the waters at Warm Springs, Georgia, and from his eventual office in the White House. It was FDR who founded, in 1938, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, known colloquially as the March of Dimes. The name March of Dimes, suggested by entertainer Eddie Cantor, referred to a national fundraising campaign, sending dimes to the White House. Eventually, $85,000 was raised in the first of many such campaigns. The March of Dimes funded the work of Jonas Salk, and by the end of the 20th century, the feared disease of polio was all but erased from the list of the world’s woes.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
An outbreak of cholera in the American South claimed the life of former President James K. Polk. Wikimedia

4. James Knox Polk and cholera

James Knox Polk was 54 when he left the White House after serving just one term as President in 1849. The one-term had been his choice, announced when he ran for the office four years earlier. His single term proved to be momentous, including the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and the peaceful resolution of the Oregon border dispute with Great Britain. Polk’s presidency exhibited the idea of Manifest Destiny more than any other American administration. When it was over, the former President planned to return to his recently acquired home in Nashville, following a tour of his native South.

His tour, which began in the March of 1849, coincided with outbreaks of cholera in the Southern states. Polk caught a cold early in the tour, which worsened as he crossed Alabama on his way to New Orleans. Polk heard of the cholera which heavily affected Louisiana, but went to New Orleans anyway, from whence he journeyed by riverboat up the Mississippi. While in New Orleans or on the riverboat (on which several passengers died) Polk contracted cholera. He reached Nashville on April 2, briefly recovered his strength, but became ill again in June. Polk died of cholera in Nashville on June 15, 1849, just three months after leaving the Presidency.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Babe Ruth in 1918. Wikimedia

5. George Herman Ruth and the Spanish Flu

During the late summer of 1918 major league baseball curtailed its season, which ended a month early during the mobilization for World War I. The season ended on September 2nd, with the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs scheduled to meet in the only World Series in history played entirely during the month of September. Spanish flu had already established a grip on the city of Boston, and several doctors warned against drawing large crowds to Fenway Park, concerned over the spread of the abnormally lethal flu. Baseball decided to go ahead with the series, during which the Red Sox young pitcher, George Herman Ruth, known to his fans as Babe, started two games. He won both.

Babe Ruth suffered through the Spanish flu before and during the World Series. He lost the advantage of using the spitball, a popular pitch of the era, because baseball temporarily banned it as a health measure to fight outbreaks. Many reports claimed that Babe contracted the flu, recovered, and then contracted it again, a claim which belied the immunity left to those who recovered. Ruth started games one and four, pitched a shutout in the first game and seven consecutive scoreless innings in the second before giving up a run. In between innings, he would often lie down, as the aches and fever of the flu tormented him. He played in other games in the outfield. Following the World Series, the Babe accepted a job in a vital war industry, earning an exemption from military services.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Wilbur Wright at the controls of a Wright glider in 1902, before the first powered flight. NASA

6. The Wright Brothers and Typhoid Fever

Numerous outbreaks of typhoid fever occurred across the United States in the first two decades of the 20th century, and it still occurs with some frequency in the 21st. Poor hygiene is the primary cause of its spread, and it, like all outbreaks and contagions, thrives in crowded areas. In 1912, Wilbur Wright traveled to Boston, Massachusetts, on a business trip for the company founded by his brother and him, The Wright Company. While there he became ill, which he originally blamed on the consumption of a bad oyster. Wilbur remained in Boston until early May, at which time he felt well enough for the train trip back to Dayton, Ohio, where both brothers lived.

Once in Dayton he again became ill, and his doctor diagnosed typhoid fever. Wilbur died on May 30, 1912. Following his death, his younger brother Orville took over as President of the Wright Company, but Orville lacked the business acumen and physical stamina for the job. In 1915, Orville sold the company. In 1918, Orville made his last flight as a pilot, after which he retired from business and served as a consultant, and with various committees and boards serving the growth of aviation. Wilbur’s encounter with typhoid fever ended the successful partnership between the brothers who gave the world the first practical airplane.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Recent scholars confirm Lincoln’s 1863 bout with smallpox was far more serious than previously believed. White House

7. Abraham Lincoln and smallpox

During the American Civil War, a smallpox outbreak occurred in Washington DC. Lincoln had never been inoculated for the disease, and the President came down with smallpox during the late fall. Some have speculated the President contracted the disease on the train to Pennsylvania to deliver the Gettysburg Address. However, Lincoln’s son Tad already had smallpox, preventing Mary Todd Lincoln from traveling to Pennsylvania with her husband. Lincoln’s smallpox, long treated as a relatively minor case, was in recent years identified as severe and debilitating for some time. During the late fall and early winter of 1863-64, Lincoln was unable to meet with several advisors due to the risk of exposure.

During the period of the disease in which the President remained bedridden his personal valet, William Henry Johnson served as his primary care provider. Lincoln remained on bed rest for three weeks, before returning to light duties with limited visitors after Christmas. By mid-January Johnson contracted the disease, dying of smallpox in a local hospital on January 28, 1864. Lincoln arranged and paid for the loyal valet’s funeral, and has co-signed a loan for his late valet, Lincoln arranged with the lender to pay half of the balance. The lender forgave the rest of the debt. Johnson was buried at Arlington Cemetery, one of 3,000 African-Americans buried there during the Civil War, as citizens rather than soldiers.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Mary Mallon was the first known asymptomatic carrier of typhoid. Wikimedia

8. Mary Mallon and typhoid fever

Born in Ireland in 1869, Mary Mallon moved to the United States in the early 1880s, where she lived with relatives in New York and found work as a cook for affluent families. In 1900, she worked and resided in Mamaroneck briefly. Several residents developed typhoid fever during her brief residence there. In 1901, she relocated to Manhattan, as a live-in servant. Several members of the family developed typhoid fever, and another servant died from the illness. She took a position with another family in Manhattan, a household of eight. Of the eight, seven became ill – again with typhoid. Mary then moved to Oyster Bay, with a family of 11. Ten became ill with typhoid fever.

The pattern continued through several households where she worked. In 1907, a researcher identified Mary as the source of the typhoid outbreak, and officials quarantined her until 1910. Mary became known as Typhoid Mary, the first asymptomatic carrier of salmonella typhi identified in the United States. Released from quarantine in 1910, she worked for a time as a laundress before changing her name to Mary Brown and returning to work as a cook. In 1915, another outbreak of typhoid fever in New York was traced to her. Authorities again arrested and confined her, and she remained in quarantine for the rest of her life, dying in 1938 from complications caused by a stroke. At least 51 typhoid infections were attributed to direct contact with her, and at least three deaths. Some experts set the total infections and deaths she caused in the hundreds.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Walt Disney contracted Spanish Flu while training as an ambulance driver. Wikimedia

9. Walt Disney and Spanish Flu

In September 1918, an adventurous 17-year-old Walt Disney expressed his desire to join the American forces heading to Europe. Accompanied by a friend who had been rejected for service in the US Navy, Disney enrolled in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, hoping to be deployed to France. Sent to a training center in Chicago, Disney contracted the Spanish Flu then raging across America. At the time, Disney’s parents resided in Chicago, and the young man returned to his family’s home to recuperate. Ill for several weeks, he recovered, and after regaining his strength he resumed his training with the ambulance corps.

In November, following the armistice which ended the fighting in Europe, Disney finally shipped overseas. The ambulance service still had work to do, but for the most part, Disney was bored with the lack of activity. To alleviate the ennui, he began to decorate the sides of ambulances with cartoons. His creativity drew the attention of editors at Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, and some of his cartoons and characters appeared in the paper in early 1919. In autumn of that year, Disney returned to the United States, settling first in Kansas City, Missouri, where his career as an animator began in earnest.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Self-Portrait with Spanish Flu, by Edvard Munch, 1919. Wikimedia

10. Edvard Munch and Spanish Flu

Norwegian artist Edvard Munch is perhaps best known for his 1893 painting he titled Der Schrei der Nature (The Scream of Nature), popularly referred to simply as The Scream. Four known versions of the painting exist, one of which bears the inscription “Can only have been painted by a madman”, placed there by Munch. The painter survived a grim childhood and spent most of his life dealing with emotional stress and the fear of mental illness which ran through his family. He drank heavily in his early life, reflected in his work, though in 1908 a mental and physical breakdown forced him to give up alcohol, at least in public.

Munch practiced what he called “soul painting“, transferring to canvas or other medium his feelings as a form of self-therapy. He strove to capture the suffering of people in his work, and his paintings included those of children ill with tuberculosis and the anguish of their parent/caretaker. In 1918, after a lifetime of poor health, Munch contracted Spanish flu. He chose to paint a self-portrait which he titled Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu. It depicted him sitting in isolation, alone in a room with an unmade bed in the background, a haggard, suffering expression on his face. It became symbolic of the illness. Munch, to his own surprise, survived the flu outbreaks and continued to work producing copies of his paintings until his death in 1944 in Nazi-occupied Norway.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Elizabeth I recovered from smallpox, but it altered her appearance and led to other health issues. Wikimedia

11. Queen Elizabeth I and smallpox

On October 10, 1562, then 29 years old Elizabeth I of England became ill with what the royal attendants believed a cold. Within a few hours, the Queen developed a high fever, and it became evident to the court she had contracted smallpox. A week later, they feared for her life. One attendant to the Queen, her close friend Lady Mary Sidney, contracted the illness from her patient, and though both recovered, Mary was disfigured by the disease. According to Mary’s husband, Henry Sidney, his wife retained the “scars of which have done and do remain in her face”, and she remained in isolation from the world following her recovery, hiding the ravages of the disease from others.

Elizabeth recovered without suffering undue scarring, though she did bear some pockmarks as a reminder of the disease. For the rest of her life, Elizabeth masked the pockmarks through the application of makeup which contained lead. The lead withered her skin, accelerated the formation of wrinkles, and thus drove the application of ever-increasing layers of the paste to cover the damage it caused. The smallpox likely accelerated her loss of hair as well, and in her thirties Elizabeth wore wigs in public appearances, to hide her baldness from her courtiers and subjects.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Wilma Rudolph went from wearing a heavy metal leg brace to Olympic Gold. Wikimedia

12. Wilma Rudolph and polio

In 1945, Wilma Rudolph contracted infantile paralysis, an often crippling disease caused by the poliovirus. Prior to her bout with polio, Wilma recovered from both pneumonia and scarlet fever outbreaks. Polio struck her at the age of five, and though she recovered from the initial symptoms of high fever and partial paralysis, the disease left her with a left leg and foot severely weakened. At six, Wilma was forced to wear a heavy brace on her leg to stand and walk. For the next several years, Wilma and her mother traveled from their Clarksville, Tennessee, home to Nashville, for treatments on her weakened leg. The trips were by bus. At home, she received treatments including massage and strengthening exercises several times each day.

By the time she was ten, Wilma walked with an orthopedic shoe and continued multiple daily exercises and therapies. By the time she was twelve, she walked without the need of orthopedic support shoes. When she entered high school, Wilma ran track and played basketball. In the 1956 Summer Olympics, Wilma was one of four women who shared the Bronze Medal for the 4 X 100-meter relay. Four years later Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three Gold Medals in a single Olympiad, earning the nickname of the “Tornado”, lauded as the “fastest woman on Earth”. United Press International named Rudolph the Athlete of the Year in 1960, fifteen years after she contracted the disease which paralyzed so many people before vaccines were developed to contain it.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Dr. Jonas Salk in 1959. Wikimedia

13. Jonas Salk and polio

In the mid-twentieth century, polio reigned as a frightening disease, often at outbreak proportions around the globe. The number of famous persons who contracted the disease is enormous. Actors Alan Alda and Donald Sutherland both suffered from polio as children; interestingly both later portrayed the same character, Hawkeye Pierce, in the television program and film M*A*S*H. Violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman suffered polio as a child, leaving him to walk with crutches for most of his life. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus recovered from polio as a child. People feared polio for its terrifying effects, its seemingly random nature concerning when and whom it attacked, and for the lack of a cure, or even effective treatment.

The 1952 polio outbreaks alone killed 3,145 people and left over 21,000 with some form of disability, the majority of them children. In 1955, virologist, Jonas Salk, produced an effective vaccine against poliovirus, following an extensive testing program including over 200,000 volunteers. Salk refused to patent the vaccine, which eventually cost him unknown millions of dollars. He obtained most of his research funding through the March of Dimes, itself created by polio survivor Franklin Roosevelt, and dedicated two and a half years of his life to develop the vaccine. Salk’s vaccine was joined by an oral vaccine developed by Albert Sabin and tested in the late 1950s. Together, the vaccines all but eliminated polio by the end of the 20th century.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
The Father of the American Political Cartoon, Thomas Nast. Wikimedia

14. Thomas Nast and yellow fever

Thomas Nast achieved fame as a political cartoonist and caricaturist. Born in Germany, he moved to New York City as a child with his mother and sister while his father served an enlistment on first a French, and later an American warship. Throughout his lifetime outbreaks of yellow fever occurred seasonally in the United States, leading many of the larger cities to be avoided by Americans wealthy enough to do so. Doctors and scientists were unaware of the viral nature of the disease, nor that its primary means of transmission was through the bite of female mosquitoes. Nast spent his career lampooning politicians, exposing corruption, and acting as a propagandist for causes he supported. Contrary to popular belief, he did not create the image of the jackass for the Democratic Party, nor was he the first to draw the iconic Uncle Sam.

In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt, a long-time acquaintance and admirer of the cartoonist, appointed him as Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Nast arrived at his post in July, just as an outbreak of yellow fever began. Several diplomatic missions and business entities arranged to leave the area during the outbreak, as was customary at the time. Nast chose to remain at his duties, assisting others fleeing the yellow fever outbreaks. Yellow fever caught up with Nast in the fall. Treatments consisted of attempts to ease the symptoms, which proved ineffective, and Nast died of yellow fever in the first week of December. In 1927, the virus which causes yellow fever became the first human virus to be isolated.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Daniel Defoe based his fictional Robinson Crusoe on Alexander Selkirk. Wikimedia

15. Alexander Selkirk and yellow fever

Alexander Selkirk served as the basis of Daniel Defoe’s fictional castaway, Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk’s career included time as a naval officer, a privateer, and as an outright pirate. In 1704, while on a voyage as a privateer, Selkirk argued with his commanding officer over the seaworthiness of their vessel, the Cinque Ports. When the vessel lay off Juan Fernandez Islands the argument grew impassioned, and Selkirk rashly announced he would remain on the island alone rather than sail further. The captain took him up on the offer, and Selkirk found himself marooned, alone on the island, with meagre supplies. Cinque Ports did sink on the ensuing voyage, though the crew survived to be imprisoned by Spanish troops in Lima, Peru.

Selkirk was eventually rescued by a privateer expedition in 1709, after four years and four months of living alone on the island. He did not return to England until 1711, and the following year published an account of his adventures as a privateer and castaway, gaining a measure of celebrity. In 1717 he returned to the sea, probably to escape legal authorities, by joining the Royal Navy. In 1721 he served aboard HMS Weymouth on an anti-piracy cruise off the western coast of Africa. Frequent landings on the coast for firewood and water exposed the men to hordes of mosquitoes, and yellow fever outbreaks ravaged the crew. Selkirk joined the growing list of victims, dying on December 13, 1721, according to the ship’s log.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
The Continental Army suffered epidemic levels of venereal disease during the Revolutionary War. US Army

16. George Washington and sexually transmitted disease

During the American Revolutionary War, sexually transmitted diseases, primarily syphilis, ran rampant in the Continental Army. The only known treatment widely employed used mercury, itself toxic, and though it worked against presented symptoms it did not cure the disease. Washington ordered punishment for those diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases, which led to men afflicted refusing to report their illness, further weakening the ranks of the army. Others sought treatment from nearby civilian communities, which often led to secondary infections and death. During the Revolutionary War, about 25% of men who suffered combat wounds died of secondary infections, and many more died of infections inflicted by medical care providers.

Washington imposed fines on those in his army found to be suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. Officers faced fines of $10 and were cashiered for repeat offenses. Enlisted men paid fines of $4, and if non-commissioned officers, were reduced in rank to private. Washington established the amounts of the fines in his General Orders, and directed the proceeds be used to purchase much-needed medical supplies, including bandages, bedding, and what medicines were available at the time. They did little good. Venereal disease outbreaks remained a problem in the Continental Army throughout its existence, a misfortune which continued in the American Army and Navy through the War of 1812.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge at Cincinnati, Ohio in 1907. Wikimedia

17. John A. Roebling and tetanus

Tetanus is not an infectious disease which can be transferred among people, or from the bites of mosquitoes, but it has been a serious killer since the beginning of time. The Greek physician Hippocrates described the disease in the 5th century BCE. As recently as 2015 there were over 200,000 cases reported worldwide, with well over 50,000 deaths as a result of contracting tetanus, despite the existence of vaccines against the disease. It develops from bacteria which enter the body through a break in the skin. If left untreated serious muscle spasms occur, along with fever, high blood pressure, and an accelerated heart rate.

John Augustus Roebling’s experiments with and manufacturing of wire ropes changed the face of American industry and travel. First used in mines, railroads, and canals, wire ropes allowed for the building of ever longer suspension bridges. While surveying a site for a bridge between the cities of New York and Brooklyn in June 1869, Roebling’s foot was crushed by an arriving boat. The injury required the amputation of the toes, but an infection soon set in, and Roebling’s overall condition deteriorated rapidly. Less than a month following the accident Roebling suffered the serious symptoms of tetanus, and died on July 22, 1869. Vaccines against tetanus arrived in the 1920s.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Louis Pasteur broke French law to develop and test a vaccine against rabies. Wikimedia

18. Louis Pasteur and rabies

Louis Pasteur’s work saved uncounted millions of lives throughout the world, simply by encouraging health care workers to frequently wash their hands and to sanitize them and equipment prior to examining patients. Prior to Pasteur’s work with germs and microbes, few doctors bothered to wash their hands between patients. Pasteur developed vaccines for animals and human beings, including a vaccine against anthrax, and for rabies. Pasteur created the first rabies vaccine for humans in the 1880s, growing the live virus he used in rabbits. In July 1885, Pasteur successfully used the vaccine on a 9-year-old boy who had been bitten by a rabid dog days before.

Pasteur was not a licensed physician in France, where the vaccination took place. Over the course of eleven consecutive days, Pasteur administered 13 inoculations to the boy. The boy did not develop rabies despite the fact that he had been bitten by a rabid dog. Pasteur later tested the vaccine on other patients, and in 1886 administered 350 vaccines to people, only one of whom developed rabies. Had any of the patients pursued legal action Pasteur faced prosecution for practicing medicine without a license. None did, and Pasteur basked in the acclaim awarded him as a national hero in France. He left strict instructions to his descendants to never reveal his personal notebooks and diaries. Not until 1964 did his papers appear in the French National Library, with severely restricted access until 1971. Numerous controversies over Pasteur and his methods have emerged since access to the papers loosened in the 1980s.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Carlos J. Finlay proved yellow fever was transmitted by the bites of infected mosquitoes. Wikimedia

19. Carlos Finlay and yellow fever

History books, particularly American textbooks, give the credit for identifying mosquitoes as culprits in seasonal yellow fever epidemics to Walter Reed, a US Army surgeon. Reed himself gave the credit to Carlos Finlay, who first presented the theory of mosquito-borne spread of the disease in 1881. For the remainder of the decade, Finlay presented a wealth of proofs supporting the theory. Reed arrived in Cuba in 1900, charged with examining several of the tropical diseases which afflicted American troops in the region. Reed used human volunteers for several experiments, which disproved many established beliefs regarding the disease and how it spread.

It also established Finlay’s hypothesis regarding the spread between humans via mosquitoes as correct. Reed cited Finlay’s work in his own papers, and in private and professional correspondence, though he became famed as the man who made the discoveries ending the yellow fever outbreaks through mosquito abatement. Reed returned to the United States in 1901 and lectured widely on yellow fever and the discoveries made by the American team he had led in Cuba. In November 1902, he suffered a ruptured appendix, developed peritonitis, and died at the age of 51. The United States Army honored him with several facilities in his name, including the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In America, Carlos Finlay is all but forgotten.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Sir Ronald Ross applied Finlay’s theories to address the spread of malaria. Wikimedia

20. Sir Ronald Ross and malaria

Malaria, like yellow fever, was for centuries viewed as a seasonal illness, the product of pestilential air during the warm and humid months. In addition to smallpox, George Washington suffered from malaria in his youth. Not until Carlos Finlay identified the mosquito as the vector which delivered yellow fever to humans did scientists and researchers eye the same mode of transmission for malaria. Ronald Ross worked at the Presidency General Hospital in Calcutta (Kolkata), applying Finlay’s findings to malaria in India, which occurred at exponential rates annually. Ross proved the life cycle of the malaria virus in mosquitoes, and the transfer of the virus to and from infected birds in 1897.

Ross’s discovery received further support when Walter Reed’s board confirmed the work of Carlos Finlay in 1900. The relationship between mosquitoes and the two greatest of the tropical killing diseases, yellow fever and malaria, offered new means of battling their annual outbreaks. Mosquito abatement through pesticides and the issuance of mosquito-proof clothing and nettings offered protection against the diseases. The first vaccine against yellow fever appeared in 1938. Vaccines against malaria continued to elude researchers into the 21st century. Malaria continued to be treated with quinine, and mosquito abatement efforts continue in areas where malaria is likely to appear in the 21st century.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Edward Jenner inoculated against smallpox using cowpox. Wikimedia

21. Edward Jenner and smallpox

Edward Jenner gave the world the words vaccine and vaccination, developed from the term he created for smallpox of the cow, Variolae vaccinae to describe cowpox. In 1798, Jenner produced a work he titled Inquiry into the Variolae vaccinae known as the Cow Pox, in which he described his finding that cowpox protected against the more lethal smallpox. Smallpox was lethal indeed in Jenner’s day, killing up to 10% of the British population annually, with localized outbreaks often reaching death rates as high as 20%. Other British physicians observed that cowpox appeared to protect against smallpox before Jenner, and inoculation was practiced by some before he did (using weakened smallpox), but Jenner made the procedure widespread. He noted the commonly accepted phenomenon that milkmaids often did not develop smallpox during outbreaks.

Jenner postulated the milkmaids were exposed to pus from the blisters caused by cowpox on the cows they milked, and were thus immunized from smallpox. Jenner scraped pus from the hands of a milkmaid with cowpox and inoculated the eight-year-old son of his gardener. He later injected the boy with weakened smallpox virus, the standard method of immunization at the time. The boy should have reacted with a weak case of smallpox, but no smallpox presented at all. Despite initial resistance from the medical community, eventually, inoculation using smallpox was banned and in 1840 the British government authorized the free distribution of inoculation using cowpox. In 1979 the World Health Organization listed smallpox as an eradicated disease. The world no longer needs to fear smallpox outbreaks.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Alexander Fleming developed the world’s first true antibiotic, and warned against its overuse. Wikimedia

22. Alexander Fleming and antibiotics

Of his discovery of the world’s first antibiotic, benzylpenicillin (penicillin G), Alexander Fleming wrote, “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for”. Fleming discovered penicillin through fortuitous circumstances while researching staphylococci. The ability of some forms of mold to combat infections had been known by the ancient Egyptians and in pre-Columbian America, but Fleming was the first to discover why. His study and testing of penicillin led to its identification as effective against the causes of scarlet fever, diphtheria, meningitis, and other infections. Nonetheless, after publishing his work with the new antibiotic Fleming largely abandoned it, convinced that it would not retain its effectiveness in the body long enough to work against any but surface infections.

In the 1930s Fleming’s pioneering work led others at the Radcliffe Infirmary to study the ways of making penicillin an effective antibiotic, easily mass-produced. Using money provided by the British government, supplemented with funding from the United States, and led by Ernst Chain and Howard Florey, they developed the means of mass-producing the drug in the late 1930s. Mass production of penicillin began shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, primarily in the United States, with the product routed to the Allied troops. By the end of the war penicillin was widely available, hailed as a wonder drug. Fleming also pioneered research into microbes developing resistance to penicillin and other antibiotics, and cautioned against its overuse by physicians.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
Rock Hudson, with Nancy and President Reagan in May, 1984. Wikimedia

23. Rock Hudson and AIDS

During the 1980s the AIDS outbreak swept a frightened gay community, though it affected others as well. American movie and television star Rock Hudson received his diagnosis of having Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in June, 1984. Despite his increasingly gaunt appearance and his deteriorating speech, he kept the diagnosis secret as he traveled to other countries to seek treatment and the elusive cure. He searched in vain. Hudson collapsed in a French hotel room in July, 1985, leading his publicist to announce the star suffered from liver cancer, and denied he had contracted AIDS. Four days later, a French publicist working for Hudson announced the star did have AIDS. Hudson was the first international celebrity confirmed with AIDS during these outbreaks.

In late August, 1985, after a month of hospitalization in Los Angeles, Hudson retired to his Beverly Hills home for private hospice care. He died at his home on October 2, 1985. Following his death, his sexual orientation and the disease which killed him became a subject of open discussion among the celebrities that knew him, sympathetic for the most part. Hudson’s admission of having AIDS brought it to the forefront of mainstream public attention, and private donations for AIDS related research more than doubled following his announcement and subsequent death. Hudson’s death did not completely erase the stigma associated with the disease, but it remains an important milestone in the battle against the worldwide pandemic.

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks
President Barack Obama and Magic Johnson in the latter’s trophy room at his home in 2013. Wikimedia

24. Magic Johnson and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

On November 7, 1991, Earvin “Magic” Johnson abruptly announced his retirement from professional basketball, due to a diagnosis of him having acquired HIV. The announcement came 45 days after his marriage to his wife, Cookie. At the time of Magic’s announcement, a relatively small percentage of heterosexual men in the United States tested positive for HIV, the virus which leads to AIDS. Johnson’s diagnosis, and his frank public disclosure, led to increased awareness that HIV could be contracted through heterosexual relations. His announcement and the subsequent public discussion removed the stigma of HIV and AIDS as the “gay cancer” it carried at the time.

Johnson admitted a premarital life of multiple sexual partners, though he denied rumors of bisexual and homosexual partners. His openness increased public awareness and the need to exercise caution with partners. Johnson returned to the NBA for the 1995-96 season, playing in 32 games for the Los Angeles Lakers. He considered returning for the following season before retiring permanently, though his appearance did much to display to the public that HIV diagnosis no longer meant a death sentence. He established the Magic Johnson Foundation to fund the fight against AIDS, later expanding it into other charitable activities. Johnson remains an activist against the spread of HIV and AIDS outbreaks in the 21st century, having fought the outbreak for nearly three decades.


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Outbreaks, outbreaks, outbreaks: A History of Outbreaks