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
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