Famous People Who Suffered During Historic Disease Outbreaks
Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks

Famous People Who Suffered during Historic Disease Outbreaks

Larry Holzwarth - April 22, 2020

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.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Smallpox”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Traitor to his Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt”. H. W, Brands. 2009

“Medical mystery: A president, an epidemic, and a grand tour cut short”. Allan Schwartz, The Philadelphia Inquirer. December 21, 2018

1918: The Year Major League Baseball – and Babe Ruth – Faced a Flu Epidemic”. Patrick Saunders, The Denver Post. March 28, 2020

“The Wright Brothers”. David McCullough. 2016

“Lincoln came near death from smallpox: researchers”. Article, Reuters. May 17, 2007. Online

“The Frightening Legacy of Typhoid Mary”. Veronique Greenwood, Smithsonian Magazine. March, 2015

“The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney”. Michael J. Barrier. 2007

“The Life of Edvard Munch”. Article, Munchmuseet.no. Online

“Unhealthy Times of Queen Elizabeth I”. Center for Evidence-Based Medicine, Oxford University. October 17, 2018. Online

“Wilma Rudolph”. Arlisha R. Norwood, National Women’s History Museum. 2017. Online

“About Jonas Salk”. Article, Salk Institute. Online

“The Life and Death of Thomas Nast”. Thomas Nast St. Hill, American Heritage Magazine. October, 1971. Online

“The Real Robinson Crusoe”. Bruce Selcraig, Smithsonian Magazine. July, 2005

“Disease in the Revolutionary War”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“The Rabies Vaccine Backstory”. Catherine Offord, The Scientist Magazine. May 31, 2016. Online

“Why There’s No Way Brooklyn Bridge Will Be Better Than The Brooklyn Bridge”. Article, Bruce Watson. Esquire Magazine. Feb 5, 2014

“Carlos J. Finlay”. Article, Encyclopedia Britannica. Online

“Malaria, mosquitoes, and the legacy of Ronald Ross”. Robert E. Sinden, World Health Organization. Online

“Edward Jenner”. Article, BBC History. Online

“Sir Alexander Fleming Biographical”. Article, Nobelprize.org Online

“Benzylpenicillin”. Article. Chemistry for Life. Online.

“The Hollywood Star Who Confronted the AIDS ‘Silent Epidemic'”. Kat Eschner, Smithsonian.com. October 2, 2017. Online

“How Has Magic Johnson Survived 20 Years With HIV?” Adam Hadhazy, Live Science. November 7, 2011. Online

Outbreaks, outbreaks, outbreaks: A History of Outbreaks