Category Archives: History

Gay History: The Peculiar Position of India’s Third Gender

Hijras occupy a special place in Hinduism. But their relationship to modern Mumbai, where transgender people are legally recognized, remains fraught.

Radhika’s “daughters,” as she affectionately calls them, pose for a portrait near their shared settlement in Mumbai, India. The hijra community is hierarchical, such that more experienced and mature hijras act as guardians and superiors to younger hijras. Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times

MUMBAI, India — When Lord Rama was exiled from Ayodhya and his entire kingdom began to follow him into the forest, he told his disciples: “Men and women, please wipe your tears and go away.”

So they left. Still, a group of people stayed behind, at the edge of the forest, because they were neither men nor women. They were hijras, which in Urdu means something like eunuchs. Those people waited in the woods for 14 years until Lord Rama returned, which won them a special place in Hindu mythology. There’s a bit of a mystery about the story’s origin — scholars say it’s not in the early versions of ancient Hindu texts — but in the past century this folk tale about the hijras’ loyalty has become an important piece of their identity. Hijras figure prominently in India’s Muslim history as well, serving as the sexless watchdogs of Mughal harems.

Today hijras, who include transgender and intersex people, are hard to miss. Dressed in glittering saris, their faces heavily coated in cheap makeup, they sashay through crowded intersections knocking on car windows with the edge of a coin and offering blessings. They dance at temples. They crash fancy weddings and birth ceremonies, singing bawdy songs and leaving with fistfuls of rupees.

Many Indians believe hijras have the power to bless or curse, and hijras trade off this uneasy ambivalence.

Gurvinder Kalra, a psychiatrist who has studied the hijra community, recalled the time when a troupe showed up ­uninvited at his nephew’s birth.

“The first thing people said was, ‘Oh my God, the hijras are here.’” Then there was a nervous pause, he said. Then laughter.

“There is this mixture of negativity and positivity, a laughter, a fear, this sense they are oddities,” Dr. Kalra said.

Radhika, 24, originally from Andhra Pradesh makes a living in Mumbai by performing blessings, begging on trains and through sex work. Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times

Behind the theatrics are often sad stories — of the sex trade and exploitation, cruel and dangerous castrations, being cast out and constantly humiliated. Within India’s L.G.B.T. community, the hijras maintain their own somewhat secretive subculture.

Radhika, a hijra living near a railway station in Mumbai, didn’t think of herself as different until she started school, a chapter of her life that did not last long. After being teased by other children, she realized she wasn’t exactly a girl, but she wasn’t a boy either. Her mother told her not to dwell on it.

“She told me, ‘You’re a girl. Stick to it.’”

It hasn’t been easy for Radhika. Her parents split up when she was young, and her mother died soon afterward. None of her relatives wanted to take care of her. After she was essentially abandoned , an older prostitute discovered her and put her to work in a garbage-strewn park selling sex. She was 8.

A decade and a half later, Radhika is still a sex worker. She wears dark saris, chipped purple nail polish, a gold ring in her left nostril and her hair down the middle of her back.

When asked how she feels each evening as she heads off to work, to stand in a line of other prostitutes along the railway tracks, waiting for customers, she shrugged.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I learned the world runs on money,” she said. “I learned that if I don’t have money, I don’t exist.’’

Honey, 22, originally from Hyderabad, outside of the room where she has been staying for one year near the Bandra train station in Mumbai. Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times
Many hijras live and work around train stations in Mumbai because begging is more profitable in high-traffic areas. Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times

In many ways, Radhika’s story is no rougher, lonelier or more desperate than those of many other hijras. Many are engaged in sex work, locked into service for a guru who takes most of their earnings.

Radhika wouldn’t utter her guru’s name. She seemed scared to talk about her. Within the hijra world, gurus fulfill the hybrid role of den mother, godfather, spiritual leader and pimp. The gurus are hijras as well, usually in their 40s or 50s.

There is a bit of a pyramid sales scheme within the hijra community. Younger “chelas,” or disciples, are managed by midranking hijras who report up to gurus, who are often steered by their own elder mentors. For every hijra, the idea is to get as many chelas working for you as possible. The money flows up; the protection from abusive customers or police officers flows down.

Lata, 61, is known as a guru in the hijra community and has live-in disciples: younger hijras who look to her for guidance and survival. Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times
Lata holding a picture of her guru. Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times

When I tried to interview a guru in Radhika’s neighborhood, the guru shook her head and said she had to get permission from her guru.

But one guru opened up. She lives on the second floor of a slum house in Mumbai, up a narrow metal ladder, like on a ship. Different from Radhika and most hijras, who spend their years in small, airless shanties with the smell of feces wafting through cracks in the walls, this guru, who calls herself Chandini, rents a relatively large apartment. She sat on a cleanly swept floor, slumped against a Whirlpool fridge.

“These days, it’s so much easier to be a hijra,” Chandini said. “Now there are doctors. When I had my sex change, we had to do it ourselves.”

In the past, she said with a sigh, countless young men died from sloppy castrations. They were often performed by people with no medical training.

India has come a long way from that. In some states, such as Kerala, in the south, a person can now get a sex change at a government hospital. A few years ago, India officially recognized transgender as a third gender, eligible for welfare and other government benefits. Not all transgender people are hijras or members of guru families.

Mita, 23, applies makeup and gets ready to go out on the trains to give blessings to passengers. In Hinduism, hijras were once revered as demigods. Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times

Hundreds of years ago, under traditional Hindu culture, hijras enjoyed a certain degree of respect. But Victorian England changed that. When the British colonized India in the mid-19th century, they brought a strict sense of judgment to sexual mores, criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” That was the beginning, scholars say, of a mainstream discomfort in India with homosexuality, transgender people and hijras.

Rajni, 20, and Puja, 23, from Orissa pose for a portrait while waiting for the train at the Bandra station. Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times
Feet symbolize the most impure part of the body in Hinduism. Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times
Sapna, 23, originally from Andhra Pradesh has been living in Mumbai for six years. She went through part of a sex reassignment surgery last year: “My inside tells me I’m a woman, so now I feel nice.” She is still saving to have breast surgery which she estimates costs $1,500. Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times

Many hijras feel a sense of alienation, of being looked at as freaks. They complain about being heckled, harassed and assaulted. Gurus help the young hijras navigate some of this; their networks of disciples are known as “houses” or “families.” The houses operate a bit like street gangs — they fight over territory for begging and prostitution and settle disputes among themselves, sometimes violently, in the shadows of train stations and slums.

Chandini made no bones about how it worked among her 15 chelas.

“They give me what they earn,” she said.

She even keeps a stack of receipt books, heaped by her TV, so anyone making a donation to a hijra in her neighborhood can keep a record of it.

A hijra showing off a tattoo. Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times

Rithika, 23 and Ammu, 21, live with their Guru in the Koliwada area of Mumbai. They have adopted each other as sisters. “If we walk on the road or on the street, people watch us like an alien, as something differently created,” Ammu said. “That has to be changed, we have to be seen as an equal.” Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times

Puja, a 28-year-old hijra, said she felt a “sisterhood” with the other hijras in her house. Puja seemed a lighter spirit, happy in her own skin. She lives with three other transgender women and they cover their rent by dancing at temples and begging on the street.

“Personally, I don’t want to beg. Nobody wants to beg,” Puja said. “And the situation is worse now for begging. The police harass us. They don’t let us beg anymore on trains. But we aren’t given any other opportunity, and now you ask us not to beg? This is not fair. This is not justice.”

At end of interview, Puja looked at me and asked very earnestly:

“What do transgenders do in your country? Do they do sex work?”

Simran, 30, walks through the Banstand area of Bandra in Mumbai. Each day Simran visits this area and asks tourists and locals for money. She must give a portion of all the money she makes to her guru. Credit… Sara Hylton for The New York Times

(Jeffrey Gettleman is the South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi. He was the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for international reporting.)

Reference

The Profumo Affair, Over 50 years on

Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler leave the Profumo trial hearing, 1963. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection

At Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers gave an eloquent summation of why a semen-stained dress and the manifold uses of a cigar had become of such absorbing interest: “HL Mencken said one time, ‘When you hear somebody say, “This is not about money” – it’s about money. And when you hear somebody say, “This is not about sex” – it’s about sex.’”

Many of those involved in Britain’s Profumo affair, which took place 50 years ago, also liked to pretend that it wasn’t really about sex. The allegation to which they repeatedly returned was that the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, 48 years old and married to former actress Valerie Hobson, and a Soviet naval attaché, Yevgeni “Eugene” Ivanov, were sharing the favours of Christine Keeler, a young, beautiful woman who eked out a living by combining erotic dancing and modelling with occasional sex for money. Keeler, who was raised on London’s fringes in a converted railway carriage, met both men at the Cliveden estate of Lord Astor on which her friend, society osteopath Stephen Ward, lived in a cottage. Profumo had been impressed when he and Astor encountered a naked Keeler, trying to shield herself with a towel, at the estate’s swimming pool on a warm July evening in 1961.

That a Tory minister had been involved in some naughtiness was the subject of rumour for several months. While there had been sly hints concerning that minister’s identity in the press, Profumo’s threat of a libel suit managed to keep all but a low-circulation Westminster newsletter in line. But several players in the affair – Keeler, Ward and Mandy Rice-Davies, another “party girl” – were already hawking their stories around Fleet Street. The scandal fully broke on 5 June 1963 when Profumo admitted that he had lied about his relationship with Keeler in an earlier parliamentary statement. Profumo immediately resigned as a minister.

The effect on a conservative government already seen to be reaching its use-by date was dramatic, especially after a blistering attack in the Commons by new Labour leader Harold Wilson. A bewildered Harold Macmillan, the Tory prime minister, never quite seemed to recover from the sordidness of it all, and soon resigned citing ill health (although he would live another 23 years). In the meantime, Macmillan had appointed the eminent judge Lord Denning to investigate the affair’s security ramifications. Denning took his duties seriously, to the extent of arranging for a doctor to inspect a government minister’s penis to see whether it matched one shown being fellated in a photograph. Denning’s published findings, unusually for a government report, became a bestseller.

It was a grubby little book. Richard Davenport-Hines’s fine new account of the scandal, An English Affair (HarperCollins; $35), justly describes the report as “awash with the spite of a lascivious, conceited old man”. Whereas Denning found kindly things to say about Profumo’s loyalty and Astor’s philanthropy, the best he could manage for Keeler was to acknowledge her “undoubted physical attractions”.

Denning could not ignore the fact that Profumo had enjoyed an extramarital affair with a woman less than half his age and then lied about it to both parliament and his party colleagues. Nonetheless, the war minister was spared the lashing that Ward received. An admittedly unattractive figure, whose hobbies included “collecting” aristocrats, celebrities and young, pretty working-class women, Ward served as a convenient scapegoat in the affair. Denning called him “utterly immoral” and a communist sympathiser, and elsewhere accused him of “vicious sexual activities”. In her memoirs, Keeler went so far as to claim he was spying for the Soviets. In August 1963, Ward took his own life during a trial for pimping, a trumped-up charge made to stick through police blackmail of witnesses.

Davenport-Hines has produced a lively book, more than two thirds of which is devoted to establishing the affair’s historical background and main players. Davenport-Hines has no time for the humbug that the scandal was about national security. Rather he sees it as a manifestation of a crisis in a class-bound and hypocritical Britain. In this respect, Davenport-Hines follows other recent scholarship, such as Frank Mort’s Capital Affairs. Mort puts much greater stress on the affair as a product of a changing city, but he is as insistent as Davenport-Hines that the episode was not primarily about its Cold War connections: the scandal crystallised wider apprehensions in Britain about sex, morality, crime, race and gender.

John Profumo

Anxieties about postwar immigration were a critical ingredient. Keeler had relationships with two Caribbean immigrants, “Lucky” Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe, an aspect of the affair that many would later find particularly shocking. In 1963, we are just five years away from Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, in which the Tory politician warned of the likely violent consequences for British society of mass non-white immigration. The presence in the story of the Caribbean men affected public judgements of Keeler, Ward and even Profumo, connecting Whitehall and Westminster with the unsavoury suburb of Notting Hill. By the early 1960s, this centre of West Indian settlement had acquired a reputation as a hub of violence, prostitution and drugs. The adventurous Keeler and Ward couldn’t resist its offerings of pot and sex. In October 1962, arguing over Keeler, Edgecombe slashed Gordon’s face with a knife in a nightclub. Later, Edgecombe fired shots at Keeler and her companion, Mandy Rice-Davies, after they refused to let him into Ward’s flat.

Keeler and Rice-Davies were not the liberated young women of second-wave feminism, yet nor were they mute and passive victims of the men who wanted to possess them. They sold access to their bodies and their stories because they understood their market value. They were true children of the consumer age. Had Keeler been born 35 years later, says Davenport-Hines, “she would have starred on Celebrity Big Brother and consulted her publicist every time her footballer boyfriend knocked her about”. But, equally, had this troubled working-class girl landed in the Swinging London of 1965 instead of the very different city of 1957, she might well have fallen into a lucrative career in the media or fashion, for she had the look that model Jean Shrimpton was already, by 1963, turning to fame and fortune.

Instead, it was her destiny to be recalled as the “tart” who helped bring down a government. There is a brief comment in Keeler’s recently updated autobiography Secrets and Lies that neatly illustrates how these women were carefully fashioning themselves for the age of celebrity. On trial for perjury, she recalled of herself and Rice-Davies: “We were having our hair done every day for the trial, trying to look our best, at Vidal Sassoon’s in Bond Street.”

This attention to image was not in vain, for the scandal produced one of the most famous photos of the century. The Lewis Morley picture of Keeler sitting naked behind the back of a chair whose lines are almost as sensual and alluring as her own hints at the sexual liberation to come, while leaving enough to the imagination to evoke the more straitlaced era being left behind.

Denning remarked that scandalous material about the famous had turned into “a marketable commodity”. That market was now global. The Australian newspapers of mid 1963 were full of the affair, while models complained about the name of their profession being attached to Keeler: “That tramp never has been and never could be a model,” trilled a former Miss Australia, Patricia Woodley. Pictures of Keeler and Rice-Davies covered the tabloids. The case was debated in serious magazines such as the Bulletin and Nation, and less earnestly among Australia’s schoolchildren, who in a witty playground rhyme calculated that a half a pound of Rice and a half a pound of Keeler added up to one pound of sexy sheila.

Davenport-Hines shows that the Profumo affair was fundamentally a media event. Some newspaper proprietors had scores to settle with the affair’s key players and many journalists were fed up with the government and the self-serving establishment it was seen to embody. Chequebook journalism, which was commonplace, fuelled the scandal, as the major protagonists sought to cash in on their stories. Journalists adopted tactics, such as burglary, that make the phone-hacking scandals of the recent past seem unexceptional.

The media used the Profumo affair as a means of attacking the whole upper class and its way of life. If journalists and newspaper owners were ruthless in their methods, collecting too many innocent victims along the way, there was at least something constructive about the outcome. Old forms of class-based deference were eroded. Women would in future would be able to exercise more independence with less risk. There would be greater sexual freedom. A country that just a few years before looked to have settled in to a decline towards comfortable mediocrity, could once again seem – if only for a few brief years – dynamic, creative and exciting.

Reference

The Profumo Affair, 50 years on, The Monthly, May 2013, by Frank Bongiorno https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2013/may/1366950578/frank-bongiorno/profumo-affair-50-years#mtr

A World Of Pandemics: Part V

What Sex Was Like During The Black Death

Have you ever wondered what sex during the Black Plague was like? It sounds sick and twisted, but life goes on, as they say, even during an epidemic. People are still people, even when a ton of people are swept away (at least 75 million died during the epidemic). Engaging in physical relationships during the Black Plague (another common name for it) was in many ways a lot like how it was during the rest of the Middle Ages, but the extreme conditions led to some extreme expressions of sexuality.

“Bedroom activity” during the Black Plague was in some ways pretty wild, with some “revelers” deciding to hump the rest of their seemingly short lives away. But doctors at the time also told people to avoid overexerting themselves in the bedroom because they thought the “bad air” would reach them easier if they did. Read on to learn more about what making love during the Black Plague was really like.

There Were “Gatherings” In Graveyards

There Were

The Black Plague was a stressful time to be alive, for obvious reasons. One way to cope, according to historian David Herlihy in The Black Plague and the Transformation of the West, was by celebrating life in cemeteries. “Group activities” were one of the ways people celebrated life. At Avignon’s Champfleur cemetery, for example, things got so bad that a papal official had to threaten the “fornicators and adulterers” with excommunication for committing “unseemly acts” on the graves.

Street walkers even took advantage of this desire by hanging out at cemeteries. It wasn’t all fornication: revelers also dared to dance, fight, throw dice, and play other games among the graves as well.

Medical Experts Advised Limited “Physical Activity”
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Medical logic at the time said that too much “physical activity” “overheated the body,” according to Joseph Patrick Byrne’s The Black Plague, and this allowed “bad air” to enter the body through one’s pores, increasing the chances of catching the plague. Heavy breathing during the act might also lead to inhaling too much of that same “bad air.” A German physician even advised that “all physical exertions and emotions of the mind,” including running, jumping, jealousy, and promiscuity, should be totally avoided or risk catching the dreaded Black Plague. What could people do? They could spend their downtime “relating tales and stories and with good music to delight their hearts.”

“Selling Yourself” Was Institutionalized

As the casualty toll of the plague increased, working girls benefited more and more, according to Jeffrey Richards. They began to enjoy a “seller’s market” due to a general lack of labor in the era, leading to “a general improvement of their conditions.”

Leah Lydia Otis wrote that as the Black Plague waned, there was a “quantum leap in the institutionalization of [working girls.]” Municipally-owned “parlors” were built, complete with “royal safeguards.” Otis did note, however, that the demand for girls began to wane at that time, as well.

Some Thought Immorality Helped Cause The Plague
Some Thought Immorality&... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list What Sex Was Like During The Black Death

Joseph Patrick Byrne wrote that many lawmakers at the time adopted the “Christian belief that sin angered God, who expressed his divine wrath through plague,” and they turned those beliefs into legislation. Many older “moral laws” essentially became just plain laws. This meant sexual immorality was heavily legislated. This “sanitary” legislation targeted sodomy and selling one’s body in particular. In Florence, for example, working girls were “kicked out” of the city in the waning years of the Black Plague. When the industry reemerged in the decades that followed, they were still forbidden to work on the streets. Certain establishments, however, were still allowed to legally operate.

There Was Still An Active Gay Subculture
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According to the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, Volume 2, a “vital urban subculture” of homosexuals existed during the Black Plague. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that “more detailed records of the life and attitudes of homosexual men and women” emerged, but this vital subculture was alive, despite “only fleeting glimpses of it in the literature” of the period.

A few decades before the Black Plague, King Edward II of England was murdered, and centuries-old rumors say he was executed for homosexual activity. (Mel Gibson’s Braveheart received a lot of criticism for its negative portrayal of Edward.) The belief that “sexual immorality” such as “sodomy” helped cause the Black Plague surely was another factor in keeping the subculture hidden during the period.

‘Pseudo-Flagellants’ Performed Acts In Public
'Pseudo-Flagellants' Performed is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list What Sex Was Like During The Black Death

So-called “flagellants” during the Black Plague were, according to Professor Mark Damen of Utah State University, “professional self-torturers” who went around whipping themselves for a fee in order to “bring God’s favor upon a community hoping to avert the bubonic plague.” They were literal whipping boys that people employed to buy “remission from sin.” The Church, of course, outlawed this behavior, but that didn’t have do much to stop the practice. There was also another group of lesser-known “pseudo-flagellants” that went from town-to-town performing “physical acts” in public for a fee. The Church outlawed them, as well.

Incidents Of Incest Increased
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In Domestic Violence in Medieval TextsEve Salisbury, Georgiana Donavin, and Merrall Llewelyn Price wrote that incest in England actually increased during the Black Plague. Why? Simple arithmetic. The plague “destroyed between one-third and one-half” of the population, making exogamy (marrying only outside their clan or community) “improbable.” The problem, Donavin wrote, wasn’t keeping cousins from marrying, but instead “finding living cousins with whom one might preserve the patrimony.” A lot of noble families died off during the plague years, meaning “intrafamilial marriages greatly increased.”

Fines For Fornication Increased
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Richard M. Smith wrote in Land, Kinship and Life-Cycle that the severity of fines for fornication in England increased as the severity of other legal fines generally decreased in the middle of the Black Plague period (1349). Smith interpreted the high fines during this period as a punishment for acts that were seen as morally improper. The courts, essentially, decided to ramp up the punishment for immorality in response to the Black Plague. Blame the fornicators, basically. Smith did note, however, that attitudes about unseemly acts such as fornication, and thus the inclination to increase the fines for such acts, may have been changing even before the plague struck.

The Most Intense Symptoms Suffered By Victims Of 14th-Century Black Plague

Responsible for eliminating anywhere between 30 to 60% of Europe’s population between 1346 and 1353, the bubonic plague was a cause of terror. Gruesome symptoms led to mass panic and widespread fear. What happened to people with the black plague? From oozing boils to decaying skin, gross symptoms of the black plague were a common sight in Europe during the 1300s. 

The disease occasionally crops up again today. While not always fatal, bubonic plague symptoms can have lasting consequences for sufferers. Early black plague signs include odd lumps and bumps, but also very common ailments. Many plague sufferers initially experience normal symptoms of a cold or flu, like a fever and chills, only to have their health start deteriorating rapidly. Learning about the black plague will leave you second-guessing waiting to see a doctor the next time you come down with a seemingly mild sickness. 

Gangrene Is An Unpleasant Side Effect

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Sufferers often end up with gangrene as a result of the virus, which is sometimes treated via drastic measures like amputation. Gangrene causes the skin to turn shades of blue, purple, green, red, or black. Swelling and blisters may also occur, and these emit a foul-smelling pus. Skin may also become cold and tender. 

One reason amputation is often necessary is that gangrene can lead to septic shock, an often fatal complication.  

Bumps And Boils Eventually Start To Ooze

After their initial appearance, the egg-sized lumps found on plague sufferers get worse. The bumps and boils spread throughout the body. Over time, they begin to rupture and emit blood and pus. 

One Complication Will Promptly Shut Down Bodily Functions

Photo: Paul Fürst (1608–1666)/Wikimedia Commons/Public Dom

Disseminated intravascular coagulation is a medical condition sometimes caused by the plague. This is a serious and potentially fatal complication in which blood clots throughout the body and – as a result – internals organs begin to shut down. This was a death sentence in the early days of the plague, and is often still fatal today.

However, the condition is sometimes successfully treated via a medically induced coma. 

Bumps The Size Of An Egg Present As The First Symptom

If you’ve contracted the plague, the first symptom is a little hard to miss. You develop what are called “buboes,” which generally develop a week after you’re exposed to the virus. These are large bumps, about the size of a chicken egg, that are found around the groin, armpit, or neck. In addition to being massive, they’re sensitive.

The bumps are also warm to the touch and tender.

Sufferers Engaged In Self-Flagellating Religious Rituals

Photo: Unknown 15th-Century Engraving/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When you’re suffering intensely for unknown reasons, it’s not uncommon to look to the skies for an answer. In the 1300s, some sufferers concluded the Black Death was a punishment brought on by an angry God for the impurities in their own souls. Their solution? Intense acts of self flagellation.

Sufferers, especially those in the upper class, would march from town to town. In front of a public audience, they would beat one another and themselves with heavy straps of leather covered in shards of metal. This ritual was repeated three times a day for a 33-and-a-half-day period.

As more and more people began participating, the pope caught wind. Concerned the self flagellants could usurp his power, he condemned the practice. It fizzled out shortly thereafter.

Mutant Bacteria Was Especially Harmful

Plague bacteria spreads rapidly throughout the body, shutting down nearly every vital function. While complications like gangrene and dehydration often led to the end for sufferers, many people were more or less poisoned.

This is due to yersinia pestis, a mutant bacteria that causes the plague. This bacteria is particularly violent as it is unable to survive outside a host, and it can penetrate and hide in a host’s cells. In order to survive, the bacteria multiplies quickly and disables a sufferer’s immune system. Yersinia pestis bacteria then clot underneath the skin, in hopes of being picked up by a passing flea.

Even Survivors Have Lasting Side Effects From The Vomiting

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Dom

Vomiting is par for the course for a wide variety of common illnesses, but this is no minor ailment when it’s related to the black plague. Depending on the duration of the infection, the consequences of months of acid reflux and vomiting can last for years. 

Take the case of Katie Simon, a woman who caught the plague on a backpacking trip she took shortly after college in the early 2000s. Her stomach was afflicted that she had to stick to a strict diet comprised of mostly bland foods free of gluten, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, and processed sweeteners. Her upper digestive system was completely inflamed, and she had ulcers covering her stomach and esophagus. Recovery took two and a half years. 

Sufferers Bleed Pretty Much Everywhere

In the disease’s later stages, bleeding is common. Septicemic plague occurs when plague bacteria begin multiplying in a sufferer’s body. They may bleed from the nose, mouth, rectum, or even under the skin. 

Extremities Blacken As Bacteria Multiply

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Doma

After an initial infection, bacteria begins to multiply in a sufferer’s bloodstream. This can cause a number of side effects associated with more common illnesses, such as fever, chills, and diarrhea. However, one symptom distinct to the black plague is a change in body color. 

Sufferers often experienced the blackening of their fingers, toes, and nose. 

Overall Skin Color Sometimes Changes

Blackening of the extremities is a common side effect, but some sufferers experience complete changes in skin color.

Take the case of Paul Gaylord, an Oregon man who contracted the plague from his cat in 2012. After the initial fever, his skin began to turn grey throughout his body. This caused his wife to rush him to the hospital, where he luckily received life-saving treatment. 

The Initial Symptoms Mimic Those Of Normal Colds And Flus

Photo: Leo Van Aken/Wikimedia Commons /Public Domain

One of the scariest things about the black plague is that initial symptoms aren’t really that different from the run-of-the-mill flu or cold. You may experience fever, shaking, general weakness, and increased sweating.

Next time you experience these symptoms, especially if you’ve been near rats or fleas recently, you might want to see a doctor just in case.  

Reference

Gay History: Remembering the Gay Man Who Saved 17 Million Lives

The WWII hero saved millions of lives before being chemically castrated for being gay. He killed himself two years later.

“[Alan Turing] was and is a hero of all time…a man who is a gay icon, who didn’t deny his nature, his being, and for that he suffered. … This is a story that celebrates him, that celebrates outsiders; it celebrates anybody who’s ever felt different and ostracized and ever suffered prejudice.”

—Benedict Cumberbatch

I usually find movie award shows to project primarily fluff and silliness, and they rarely stir deep emotions in me. But listening to Benedict Cumberbatch accept the award for Best Actor at the American Film Awards for his portrayal of Alan Turing in the film The Imitation Game two years ago brought me to tears.

This stemmed from a sense of deep pride and an endless abyss of sadness. Cumberbatch’s commitment and passion shined through on stage as he talked about transforming Turing’s story, his brilliance, and his humanity to the silver screen, helping to give Turing the long-overdue wide-scale recognition he rightly deserves.

Alan Mathison Turing was a pioneering computer scientist, and he served as a mid-20th century British mathematician, logician, and cryptanalyst who, working during World War II at England’s Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, succeeded with his team of scientists and linguists in cracking the “Enigma code” used by the Nazi command to conduct covert communication operations.

Because of Turing and his colleagues’ efforts, Cumberbatch said, there is now general agreement that they shortened the war by at least two years, saving an estimated 17 million lives. Prime Minister Winston Churchill singled out Turing as the person whose work contributed the most to defeating the Germans.

The Imitation Game also highlights the enormous obstacles placed in the way of women entering the sciences, especially mid-century. In this regard, Keira Knightley made an equally moving speech at the American Film Awards in accepting theBest Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of Joan Clarke, who worked with Turing in deciphering the code.

“Particularly now, when women are such a minority in all fields, her story and the fact that she really perseveres, and she had space and time and grace, is really inspiring,” she said.

Though initially considered a national hero in Britain, in 1952, government officials arrested and prosecuted Turing on the antiquated charge of “gross indecency” when he “admitted” to maintaining a same-sex relationship. Rather than serving time in prison, Turing chose to undergo estrogen injections then considered in men a form of “chemical castration” eliminating sex drive. Turing took his life two years later by swallowing cyanide just two weeks short of his 42nd birthday.

I find it deeply ironic that while Turing and his team helped defeat the Nazi war machine, a nation intolerant of any form of difference including same-sex relations (especially between men), the primary “allied” nations fighting Nazi Germany – United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union – all maintained laws criminalizing homosexuality.

Under King Henry VIII in 1533, England passed a “buggery” (or sodomy) law, doling out the penalty of death for “the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind or beast.” Under the rule of Elizabeth I in 1564, death for same-sex acts between men became a permanent part of English law until the 1880s. British courts at the time concluded that sex between two women was impossible and, therefore, exempted women from the statute. By 1885, English Criminal Law punished homosexuality with imprisonment up to two years. This remained in effect until homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967.

In addition, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin criminalized homosexuality with eight years imprisonment or exile to Siberia. And in the United States, consensual same-sex relations were against the law at one time in all states, and remained illegal in some states as late as 2003, when the Supreme Court finally overturned such bans in its Lawrence v. Texas decision.

In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown officially apologized to Alan Turing on behalf of the people of his nation for “the appalling way he was treated.” Parliament finally brought up a bill of “pardon” in 2013, and on 24 December, 2013, Queen Elizabeth granted Turing a posthumous pardon.

Though the English government never actually forced a physical stigma onto Turing’s body, they branded the symbol of the outsider, the pervert, the enemy deeply into his soul. This branding seriously deprived the British nation and the larger world community of his continued genius, his generosity, and the many additional gifts he could have imparted.

I agree with Benedict Cumberbatch that Turing’s wide-scale recognition is long overdue.

Reference

Slang For Penis And Where It Comes From

Americans rarely use the word “penis” in conversation. We say pecker or prick, willie or wang. Or whopper, wiener, wiggle stick, wrinkle beast, wobbly warhead, even wife’s worst enemy. “We, as humans, love to play with language, and mixing taboo language with clever wordplay to get coinages is a really common endeavor simply because it gets such a great reaction in others,” slang lexicographer Grand Barrett says. As a result, we’re always creating new slang for “penis,” and a lot of it can be traced back to these 11 words.

11 c. Sword

An instrument of death and destruction. A symbol of power and strength. A protector. An avenger. A slayer. The mighty sword is the ultimate symbol of masculinity. So, of course, it became one of the earliest slang terms for the penis, although a flaccid penis does not necessarily benefit from the comparison. Suddenly, swordplay is much less impressive.

 More derivations: arrow, lance, warder, pike, ramrod, bazooka, gun, pistol, dagger, cutlass

1610s Cock

While it’s possible that “cock” developed its sexual affiliation from its second meaning, “spout,” it’s more likely that it came from similarities to the wobbly red bits on a rooster’s neck. Just as a man’s penis reacts to arousal, an angry or excited cock’s wattles fill with blood, swell and brighten. Additionally, when a rooster crows, he arches his neck and tips his head back. Sound familiar? “Cock” eventually became so associated with the penis that the word “rooster” was created in the late 18th century to replace it.

 Modern derivations: pillicock, peacock, cockroach, cockaroony, doodle

1676 Penis

“Tail” has been used to refer to both male and female genitals since the 14th century, but “penis,” the Latin word for “tail,” was not introduced to the English language until 1676. And it wasn’t until 1965 that “schwanz,” the German word for “tail,” was assimilated. The usage creates an entirely new meaning to the phrase “tail wagging the dog.”

 Modern derivations: bobtail, tickle-tail, pee pee, peep, peeper, pee wee, pee nee, peanut, pencil

1790s Doodle

Before its induction into the dick-tionary, “doodle” was used to denote a simpleton. In the late 18th century, this became associated with a man who thinks not with his “big brain” but with his small one. Of course, “doodle” could also be a distant cousin of “cock,” born from a rooster’s crow—cockadoodle-doo. Either way, the word is at its best from the lips of Rainn Wilson in Juno, “This is one doodle that can’t be undid, home skillet.”

 More derivations: doodad, doohicky, loodle, whangdoodle, wang

1800s Roger

While Richards everywhere have borne the modern weight of the penis-name burden, they aren’t alone. In fact, “Roger” was the first in a long line of names applied to the penis. “Thomas” was second, introduced in 1811, followed by “Dick,” “Peter” and “Willie.” In general, these poor gentlemen are simply victims of having a common name. But let’s be honest, all Richards who choose to go by Dick are asking for it.

 More derivations: Pete, Pepe, Rudy, Willer, Stanley, Johnson

1888 Dingus

The 19th century was a time of discretion and delicacy, not description. Americans were prone to replacing distastefully specific words with more general and thus less offensive ones. “Breasts” was replaced with “bosom,” a word that referred to a woman’s entire midsection. “Legs” was replaced with “limbs.” And “penis” was replaced with “dingus,” a word derived from Dutch dinges that simply means “thing.”

 More derivations: dinkus, dink, winky, winkus, tinky, stinky winky, winky wonkers, konk konk

1900 Dong

It is said that “dong” first became associated with the penis after the publication of Edward Lear’s poem “The Dong with a Luminous Nose.” As the story goes, a one-eyed creature referred to as The Dong attempts to find himself a lady using a long, red lamplike probe. Tragically, light-up noses are not great lady-finders, and all his searching is in vain. Good thing he has his flesh light to keep him company.

 More derivations: dangle, dingle, dingle dangle, ding ding, ding dong, dingleberry

1910 Wiener

Wienerwursts, literally “sausages of Vienna,” became familiar in the United States in the late 19th century. But the word “wiener” was not created until the “-wurst” was dropped in 1905. The wiener was not commonly associated with the penis until five years later. This means it took more than a decade for the most phallic food in history to be officially associated with the penis. How disappointing.

 More derivations: wienie, wee, weeter, wee wee, weedle, wenis, sausage

1932 Putz

German and Yiddish — both Germanic languages — share many of the same words. For example, “putz” and “schmuck” roughly translate to “ornament or decoration” in both languages. However, Jews used “schmuck” and “putz” to refer to a penis, and Germans used them to denote jewelry or Christ’s manger in a Nativity scene. Despite the inevitable miscommunications the holiday season may bring, Jews and Germans agree that there’s nothing like a good “putz” to put everyone in a festive mood.

 More derivations: wantz, schmeck, schmeckel

1986 Junk

While the exact origination of “junk” is unclear, there are theories that claim “junk” was a common word for male genitalia in gay culture in the early ’80s. During that time, “junk” was usually associated with being kicked. Since then, “junk” has ameliorated; it has lost some of its potency. Today, “junk” is commonplace. It could mean anything from male or female genitalia to worthless stuff.

 More derivations: package, lunch box, picnic basket

2009 Disco Stick

Although Lady Gaga’s homemade euphemism confused audiences at first, the infamous hook “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick” would carry “LoveGame” into top-ten charts in more than ten countries. Gaga cleared up any confusion on the words’ meaning in an interview with Rolling Stone, saying, “It’s another of my very thoughtful metaphors for a cock.” Barrett attributes creations like this to young people’s propensity to be “a hell of a lot more fun, which leads to lots more wordplay and goofing with language just for the heck of it.”

 More derivations: meat stick, blow stick, jolly stick

Even More Derivations

schlong, little finger, widgy, ting ting, tilly, hoo hoo, hoozee, mushroom, turkey, cookie, carrot, pudding, beans, tallywacker, goober, bug, buggy, flubbly, paddle wackle, hose, sprinkler, doohinger, baloney pony, trouser snake, uterus unicorn

Before A Penis Was A Penis: Sex Slang Throughout History

What word did people use for “vagina” in 1714? Or for “testicles” in 1300? Along with the rest of language, sex terminology has been evolving since humans started talking. Lest you assume that the vestiges of modern-day sex talk have been lost in the annals of time, the world’s foremost slang lexicographer is here to say it ain’t so. And, he should know; he can tell you exactly what a vagina was called in 1714.

Jonathon Green has dedicated his life to studying slang. His book, Green’s Dictionary of Slang, chronicles the march of English-language slang through the past five centuries — an epic Urban Dictionary for the ages that covers 10.3 million words (with citations) and has understandably solidified Green’s role as slang lexicography’s finest.

Now, Green and TimeGlider have graced us with interactive online charts that break out perhaps the most fascinating genre of Green’s research: sex slang. Humans have been “bumping uglies” since our cave days, but we certainly didn’t call it that back then. So, which period in history lays claim to the most inventive terms for genitalia and sex?

The Timeline of Slang Words for the Vagina begins in 1250, with the first recorded appearance of the (now-derogatory) word “cunt.” Fortunately, the vagina was eventually lavished with more poetic euphemisms, including “Venus’s honeypot” (early 1700s), “quim whiskers” (late 1800s), and, descriptively, “that thing” (early 1900s). The minds of vagina-label innovators apparently turned to food by the end of the 20th century, as evidenced by the monikers “bikini burger,” “hairy doughnut,” and “bacon sandwich.”
The penis slang timeline begins with the year 1300 and the first known usage of the word “ballocks.” This term’s proved its worth via longevity; you can find it on the lips of frustrated Brits even today, with a slight vowel adjustment. And, English speakers only got more creative from there. “Fiddle,” “spindle,” and “pulling prick” all cropped up in the Middle Ages to describe the penis, while “bush-whacker,” “cranny hunter,” “fornicating engine,” and “Captain Standish” (yes, seriously) are just a few of the nicknames born at the turn of the 20th century. And, the sexy-talk walk through history doesn’t end there.

For even more linguistic amazingness, explore the charts that track the evolution of slang for intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, orgasm, bodily fluids, and contraception. In honor of this week’s #tbt, why not sprinkle some seriously old-timey diction into your sexting? While the effect would be most dramatic if you delivered your message by horse (or raven), your iPhone will do just fine. And, if your partner asks if you’d like to “navigate the windward passage,” just be sure to consult Green’s chart before you agree. It may be safer to stick with the word “fuck” — thatone’s been around since the 1500s, and still means the same exact thing.

101 Funny Slang Names for the Male Penis

Did you know that Inuit people have 50 different words for snow? It’s an indicator that snow is an important part of their lives and has been for a long time. That’s really telling when you think about how many words there are for a man’s genitals. While “penis” is the technical medical term, it’s the one we use the least. This list has 101 different names for your junk (that makes 102). You’ll get a laugh out of at least a few of them.

1. Womb Broom
Any ladies need help cleaning their closet? Ok, that might not make sense, but this is still a good one. 
2. Womb Raider 
We’d play all 20 installments of this game series. 
3. Weapon of Ass Destruction 
This one speaks for itself. 
4. Vlad the Impaler 
It’s a classic for a reason. 
5. Uncle Reamus 
This probably has British origins. They’re still the masters of dirty language. 
6. Trouser Snake 
Sometimes this is a euphemism. Sometimes it’s a terrifying camping story. 
7. Tan Banana 
This is only true for the bold. Some might find the prospect of a sunburned penis terrifying. 
8. Sex Pistol 
Which came first — the band or the slang term? 
9. Russell the One-Eyed Muscle 
If you can think of another name that rhymes with muscle, feel free to sub it. 
10. One-Eyed Monster 
There are a lot of “one-eyed” slang terms. It’s important to have variety.
11. One-Eyed Trouser Trout 
Whoever decided to call a penis a trouser trout probably has an interesting story.  
12. Rumpleforeskin 
Be honest. You’re disappointed you didn’t think of this first. 
13. Richard and the Twins 
Speaking of Richard, a kid called us a Richard Cranium once. It took us a while to get it. 
14. Purple Helmeted Warrior of Love 
Any reference to the dong being a purple helmet is gold in my book. 
15. Puff the One-Eyed Dragon 
It breathes fire when it gets puffed! Well, sort of. 
16. Prince Everhard of the Netherlands 
This could also be the name of a band. Or an album! 
17. Pleasure Pump 
It’s accurate, simple, and effective. 
18. Moby Dick 
Every young boy in the world laughed the first time he heard this book title. It had to be on the list. 
19. Lord Hardwick 
Our penises are definitely nobility. How about yours? 
20. Long Dong Silver 
Have you ever read Treasure Island? Now you don’t have to! 
21. Lap Rocket 
Well, it can be explosive at times. 
22. Knobgoblin 
This has to be the most demeaning term you can level at another human being. 
23. King Dong 
I mean, obviously. Right? 
24. Just-in Beaver 
Easily the best thing to come from Bieber’s famed career. 
25. Herman von Longschlongenstein 
Remember it’s pronounced “Stine” and not “Steen.”

26. Heat Seeking Moisture Missile 
If this doesn’t make you rethink everything about your own penis . . . 
27. Frank n’ Beans 
It’s a weird mental image if you think about it too hard. 
28. Fuck Puppet 
Right to the point! 
29. Excalibur 
You’ve made this joke. Don’t lie. 
30. Energizer Bunny 
That ad campaign has been around for a long time. So has this nickname. 
31. Disco Stick 
This feels dated until you realize disco is still a thing in Europe. No, really.
32. The Dicktator 
You just chuckled, didn’t you? Welcome to your future. It’s all dad jokes from here. 
33. Cocktapus 
If you have eight members, you need to see a doctor. Or a publicist. 
34. Clam Hammer 
It even helps produce pearl necklaces. 
35. Cave Hunter 
It’s not the funniest name on the list, but it still feels appropriate. 
36. Blue Veined Aristocrat 
The little guy only has to be an aristocrat in public. Behind closed doors is another story. 
37. Atomic Turtle 
We’re honestly not sure why it’s atomic, but it feels right. 
38. Action Jackson 
Try not to conflate this with a Disney Channel show you watched as a young child. 
39. Mutton Dagger 
There seems to be a recurring theme of objects that pierce and meat. 
40. Yogurt Slinger 
An all-time classic. It’s funny. It’s gross. It has everything. 
41. Meat Scepter 
Remember gents, mushroom stamps are a form of harassment. 
42. Wedding Wrecker 
Oofa. This might be a little too true. 
43. Spam Javelin 
Another meat piercer. Cool. 
44. Tuna Torpedo 
The theme reigns. 
45. Dora the Explorer 
It’s a joke that had to be made. But at what expense?! 
46. Vagina Miner 
Is this a real occupation??? 
47. Jurassic Pork 
You’ll never watch those movies the same way again. 
48. Tiny Tim 
Hopefully, this doesn’t imply your Tiny Tim needs a crutch. Although, he probably has a nasty cough. 
49. The Bone Ranger 
Hi-yo Silver! 
50. Woody Womb Pecker 
At some point, you’re going to have to come to terms with your fear of children. 
51. Ass Opener 
You might not believe it, but this is actually a very old nickname. It stems from the 1890s. 
52. Ass Wedge 
This is also from the 1890s. It’s hard to say which is better. 
53. Bayonet 
Does this make implications about Bayonetta? 
54. Beard Splitter 
Great. Now we’re associating vaginas with dwarves or some shit.

55. Best Leg of Three 
This is just truth. 
56. Brat Getter 
Well, go get ‘em. 
57. Bum Tickler 
It’s ok if you giggled. It’s the right response. 
58. Bush Whacker 
This does not mean you should attach a hair trimmer to your penis. Put it down! 
59. Creamy Hunter 
Well, yeah. 
60. Customs Officer 
This is my new favorite. 
61. Dr. Johnson 
Let’s be real. The little guy has earned a title of respect. 
62. Eye Opener 
Sometimes it’s also an eye closer. 
63. Father Confessor 
If he can elicit cries to God, then this sounds about right. 
64. Foreman 
Yes, it’s a pun. You know you like it. 
65. Lance of Love 
An oldie but a goodie. 
66. Leather Stretcher 
Try not to associate this one with Leatherface. 
67. Life Preserver 
If someone is drowning, don’t throw them your penis. 
68. The Heimlich
The next time someone shouts “Giver her the Heimlich!” You know what to do. 
69. Love Dart 
It’s important to practice your aim. 
70. Manroot 
This makes an odd amount of sense. 
71. Master of Ceremonies 
He’s good at it too. 
72. Meat Skewer 
This one isn’t trying too hard, is it? 
73. Milkman 
What does this make the milkman’s daughter? 
74. Mole 
He does like to burrow into a hole. 
75. Pee-Wee 
This got meta when Pee-Wee Herman got in trouble for showing his Pee-Wee.

76. Skyscraper 
You wish. 
77. Tentpeg 
You shouldn’t be pitching a tent right now . . . 
78. Silent Flute 
Well, sometimes sound comes out. 
79. Skin Flute 
But it’s not always melodic. 
80. Sweetener 
If you tell this lie enough times it might actually work. 
81. Redcap 
Maybe purplecap would be better, but that’s not a pun. 
82. Majesty 
Forget aristocracy! He’s royalty. 
83. Charmer 
When the snake becomes the charmer . . . 
84. Champion 
He really is. After all that abuse you’ve put him through, it’s the only right word. 
85. Baby Fetcher 
You’re still flinching? You know where babies come from, right? 
86. Axe 
If the female counterpart is called an axe wound, then this one has to be on the list. 
87. Nightstick 
You can use it during the day too. It’s ok. 
88. Joystick 
There might never have been a truer name for a man’s junk. 
89. Gospel Pipe 
You just want to believe this one. 
90. Drill 
I took this too literally once. I’m still dizzy. 
91. Family Organ 
Get it? Eh? 
92. Crown Jewels 
Also known as the family jewels. 
93. Ham Bone 
I’ll never understand why the male member is associated with pork. 
94. Old Boy 
This is actually the most British thing ever said. 
95. Ambassador 
He is vital to foreign relations. 
96. Organ Grinder
Ouch. 
97. Bald-Headed Sailor 
We probably don’t relate to the baldness of our penises enough. 
98. One-Eyed Rattlesnake 
Thankfully he’s not venomous. 
99. Tonsil Tickler 
Only on a good day. 
100. Toothpick
It might imply a small penis, but the oral connotation is worth it. 
101. The Fantastic Four 
This name can be adapted to many forms: the furious five, the salacious six, the dirty dozen. The idea is that you’re implying the length of your penis in the joke. The key is to never use the same phrase twice. You want to keep people guessing.

Ten Words That Have Surprisingly Offensive Origins

Covered mouth image from Shutterstock

While the etymology of many words we use today has faded into obscurity, there are some that are more offensive than we can ever imagine. There may be some words you use every day without a thought to their original meanings. Here are ten that it pays to be aware of.

#1 Bugger

noun | bug·ger | \ˈbə-gər, ˈbu̇-gər\

1. sodomite

2. a worthless person

3. a small or annoying thing

eg. “put down my keys and now I can’t find the buggers”

As well as being a noun as described above, Australians tend to use this word as a tamer expletive than some of its four-lettered cousins. However, though many people know its secondary meaning as ‘a sodomite’ or ‘sodomy’, not many know that the word was originally racially charged as well. Bugger comes from Middle English bougre which was derived from Medieval Latin Bulgarus — a literal translation for ‘Bulgarian’. This came by through association with a Bulgarian religious sect called the Bogomils, whose ways were so unorthodox that they were accused of sodomy.

Use instead: Depending on the context in which you’re using the word, you might instead call someone a ‘nuisance’. If you’re use it as an expletive… well, there’s really no reason not to enjoy the four-lettered classics.

#2 Uppity

adjective | up·pi·ty | \ˈə-pə-tē\

•putting on or marked by airs of superiority, eg. “uppity technicians” “a small uppity country”

The word uppity is commonly used to put down someone who is seen to be acting above their station — putting on airs and speaking out of turn, generally being a nuisance. While the word can be applied to pretty much anyone these days, its origins were in the United States’ racist heyday, during segregation. In this period, Southerners used the term “uppity” to describe black people who didn’t know their place in society. The word doesn’t sound so casual anymore when you consider that people have likely been lynched at one point in history due to being too “uppity”.

Use instead: ‘Arrogant’ and ‘pretentious’ are both great words to knock someone down a peg, without those nasty racist overtones.

#3 Gyp

noun | \ˈjip\

•cheat, swindler, eg. “Is that all they give you? What a gyp!” “we were very disappointed when the “free weekend in Las Vegas” offer turned out to be a gyp”

“Gyp” or “gypped” has universally come to mean being cheated or swindled, and though there’s no solid evidence for the origin of this slang term, it’s highly likely that it is derived from ‘gypsy’, a derogative term for the Romani people. While many people know little of “gypsies” other than what we see in Disney movies and costume shops, the Romani people have a long history of persecution — including their attempted genocide at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

Use instead: ‘Swindled’ is an oldie but a goodie, or if you’re feeling ripped off, ‘highway robbery’ is a fun phrase without the racist undertones.

#4 Paddy wagon

noun | pad·dy wagon | \ˈpa-dē-\

•an enclosed motortruck used by police to carry prisoners, eg. “The cooperative family was being escorted into the paddy wagon”

While the racist meaning of paddy wagon is more overt to anyone who stops to think about it, it’s also so ingrained in our lexicon that it’s hard to stop and think in the first place. For those who are blissfully unaware, paddy wagon is the slang term for a police car. And where it came from? “Paddy”, short for “Patrick”, was a pejorative term for any Irishman — a group who have been the butt of many jokes for much of the last century. Whether the term came into use because there were many Irish criminals or because of a large number of Irish policemen, the association is still not the best one to be making. Interestingly enough the similar term ‘meat wagon’ seems to be used by people misinterpreting this phrase as ‘patty wagon’.

Use instead: “Police car” or “police van” should suffice.

#5 Hooligan

noun | hoo·li·gan | \ˈhü-li-gən\

%bull;a usually young man who does noisy and violent things as part of a group or gang, eg. “shouldn’t you hooligans be in school instead of threatening old ladies?”

While the term ‘hooligan’ is fairly dated these days — I can only seem to think of that crotchety old man yelling “you hooligans get off my lawn!” — other forms of the word are still in common usage. ‘Hooliganism’ in particular is one that the media seems keen to trot out as often as they can. But as in the case of ‘paddy wagon’ hooligan originally came from some poor sod’s surname — Houlihan. The name was used for a rowdy fictional Irish family in a popular drinking song, and soon after the word came to be a catchall for anyone displaying rowdy, violent tendencies.

Use instead: ‘Hoodlum’ is a word with a longer, non-racist history. ‘Hoon’ is also a uniquely Australian take on the concept.

#6 Eskimo

noun | Es·ki·mo | \ˈes-kə-ˌmō\

•a member of a group of peoples of northern Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and eastern Siberia

Far from being those cute, fur-wearing, nose-kissing people of the Arctic regions, this is actually an offensive term for the Inuit people. The reason? The word ‘Eskimo’ comes from the Danish loanword ‘ashkimeq,’ literally translated to ‘eaters of raw meat’. Calling an extensive group of different societies by such a gross generalisation is a great way to limit understanding of the entire culture.

Use instead: The proper term is Inuit, meaning “the people”. That’s it, unless you know the proper name of each individual nation.

#7 Hip hip hooray!

•an exclamation of congratulations especially in response to a call for ‘Three cheers for’ the person.

The racist origin of this common celebratory cry is controversial, but it potentially stems from the Hep Hep Riots — anti-Semetic riots conducted throughout Germany in the 19th century. The participants in these demonstrations reportedly cheered “hep hep” as they chased Jews from their homes. “Hep hep” was a traditional German call that shepherds would use while herding their sheep, but was given another meaning entirely in 1819 when it was Jews who were hunted under this rallying cry.

Use instead: ‘Hooray’ by itself is completely harmless, or the more old-timey ‘hoorah’.

#8 No Can Do

informal + humorous

•used in speech to say that one cannot do something that he or she has been asked or told to do, eg. “Can you give me a ride to work tomorrow?” “Sorry— no can do. My car is in the shop.”

The game of Chinese Whispers has been renamed in the past few years for its racist connotations, but few know that the common phrase “no can do” is a similar riff on the idea that Chinese people speak broken English. While it has since moved into common parlance, this phrase was originally used as a mimicry of a Chinese person with a heavy accent — and the same is true of ‘long time, no see’.

Use instead: Going back to the origin of the phrase “I can’t” or “I can’t do it” would be your safest option.

#9 Basket case

noun

1. a person who is very nervous, tired, etc., and is not able to think or act normally

2. something (such as a company or a government) that is in very bad condition and close to failure

eg. “I was so worried about losing my job that I was a complete basket case.”

Oddly enough the term basket case is not commonly used by its dictionary meaning today, and seems to now have connotations of someone being crazy (perhaps being mixed up with terms like head case and mental case). As it was originally used, however, a basket case refers to someone who is useless or not functioning well. The reason for this has its origins in WWI, when a ‘basket case’ was someone who had lost all four limbs and therefore had to be carried around in a basket. Not the best mental image and potentially offensive to amputees.

Use instead: ‘Nervous wreck’ or ‘bundle of nerves’ are nicely evocative terms that don’t risk making fun of quadruple amputees.

#10 Hysterical

noun | hys·te·ria | \his-ˈter-ē-ə, -ˈtir-\

1. a state in which your emotions (such as fear) are so strong that you behave in an uncontrolled way

2. a situation in which many people behave or react in an extreme or uncontrolled way because of fear, anger, etc.

eg. “A few of the children began to scream, and soon they were all caught up in the hysteria.”

Hysterical’s modern usage is problematic enough by itself, with the word most often being applied to women — looking at the first dictionary definition, you might be able to tell why that’s an issue. However the connotations behind calling a woman ‘hysterical’ have far-reaching implications beyond even the 2011 film Hysteria.

The term comes from the Greek ‘hysterikos’, meaning ‘of the womb’ or ‘suffering in the womb’. The Greeks believed that the uterus was the direct cause of a number of female ailments, based on the premise that the uterus was essentially its own organism. The womb was said to be so obsessed with creating children that it would wander the body, pressing up against other organs and causing medical havoc unless it was pregnant. Yup.

Use instead: Try ‘overwrought’, ‘frenzied’ or ‘agitated’ if you really have to call someone ‘hysterical’ without resorting to womb-based comparisons.

Reference

Patron Saints of the Nerds…and Hackers

NEW ORLEANS – Here in the oldest church building in New Orleans, tucked into a dark corner by the door as far away from the main altar as possible, stands the statue of St. Expedite – the unofficial patron saint of hackers.

Unofficial because the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t know what to do about St. Expedite. He’s too pagan to be a proper saint, and too popular for his statues to be simply tossed out the door.

Statues of St. Expedite seem to appear at some churches, a puzzling phenomenon. Where do the statues come from? Who sends them? No one really seems to know who St. Expedite was in life or even if he ever existed.

But whatever St. Expedite may or may not be, geeks, hackers, repentant slackers, folks who run e-commerce sites and those who rely on brains and sheer luck to survive have all claimed the saint as their own.

In 2002, the Catholic Church offered up St. Isidore of Seville as the saint of computer programmers. Isidore seemed to be a fine choice – in the 7th century, he produced one of the world’s first databases, a 20-volume encyclopedia called The Etymologies, intended to be a summation of everything that was known about the world he lived in.

But Isidore somehow seems a bit too plodding for hackers, plus his life story includes none of the weird wordplay that makes so many hackers happy.

St. Expedite’s name obviously relates to his attested ability to deliver favors quickly to the faithful. But wait! There’s more – a joke about how St. Expedite manages to maneuver his statues into churches.

In 1781, or so the story goes, a packing case containing the body of a saint who’d been buried in the Denfert-Rochereau catacombs of Paris was sent to a community of nuns in the city. Those who sent the body wrote “Expedite” on the case, to ensure fast delivery of the corpse for the obvious reasons.

The nuns got confused, assumed Expedite was the name of a martyr, prayed to him, had a bunch of prayers answered amazingly quickly and the cult of St. Expedite was born. News of this saint who cheerfully dispensed quick miracles soon spread rapidly through France and on to other Catholic countries.

It’s a swell story, but Italians were asking St. Expedite to grant their wishes well before 1781, so either the date or the entire story is wrong. And the whole thing just screams urban legend anyway.

A different version of the same story is told in New Orleans. Supposedly, the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe received a big shipment of assorted saint statues. Only one didn’t have a proper label on the case identifying the saint whose statue was contained within. But the crate did have an “Expedite” label on it, so the locals decided that must be the saint’s name.

A century and a half later, according to the story, they found out there was no saint called Expedite. However, a little research turned up the obscure St. Expeditus, whose status as a possible Armenian martyr gave the Expedite myth legitimacy.

St. Expedite is typically depicted as a young Roman centurion squashing a crow beneath his right foot and hoisting a clock or, in later versions, a cross inscribed with the word hodie (“today” in Latin). A ribbon with the word cras (“tomorrow” in Latin) emerges from the squished crow’s mouth. The idea is that St. Expedite destroys people’s proclivity to procrastinate and vanquishes vague promises of joyous tomorrows in favor of making things happen right now.

Why a crow? English-speaking people tend to mimic the sound a crow makes as “caw caw.” Italians hear it as “cras cras.” In Italian folk tales, crows and ravens are forever yapping on about tomorrow.

St. Expedite is also widely considered, among people who consider such things, to provide real-time assistance on problems – he’s the saint of the fast solution. He is also is the patron saint of people who have to deliver work or products on a tight schedule.

While visiting St. Expedite in New Orleans, we saw half a dozen people come in and tuck notes and flowers by the saint’s statue, ignoring the official saints in the front of the church.

“St. Expedite got me a job fast after my company closed down last month,” said Letish Jackson of New Orleans, who’d come to the church to thank the saint. “If you knew how hard it is to get jobs here you’d know that me being employed is a very big miracle.”

She’s not the only one who turned to the saint for financial help. A recent article that appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal noted that St. Expedite has also become the patron of victims of outsourcing.

Jackson, and other Our Lady of Guadalupe parishioners, said that “computer people,” as Jackson described them, often come to visit St. Expedite.

“I asked my friend who runs a computer repair service why those people come here, and he says Expedite is the nerd’s saint,” said Jackson. “My friend said St. Expedite is all about delivering information fast.”

Patron saints in general are broadband connections to the Almighty, passing along messages from the desperate or faithful. And the Catholic Church seems to have a patron saint for every possible need.

St. Joseph of Cupertino, the “flying friar,” is not the patron saint of Mac users – he’s appealed to by skittish air travelers (it’s said the good friar levitated whenever he was happy). Girls who live in rural areas can pray to St. Germaine of Pibrac, the patron of peasant females.

“I’m not a big believer in the saints, but St. Expedite is another whole story – he’s so good he’s scary,” said freelance computer support consultant Kathy Dupon, a resident of New Orleans. “My clients were forever paying me late until I taped a card with the saint’s picture behind my mailbox as a joke last year. Now my checks almost always arrive on time.”

ST ISIDORE OF SEVILLE

St. Isidore of Seville

Born: c.560 in Cartagena, Spain 

Died: April 4, 636

Canonized: pre-Congregation

Feast Day: April 4

Patron Saint of: computers, computer users, computer programmers, Internet

Isidore was born in Cartagena, Spain, about 560 AD, the son of Severianus and Theodora. His elder brother Leander was his immediate predecessor in the Metropolitan See of Seville; whilst a younger brother St. Fulgentius presided over the Bishopric of Astigi. His sister Florentina was a nun, and is said to have ruled over forty convents and one thousand religious. Isidore received his elementary education in the Cathedral school of Seville. In this institution, which was the first of its kind in Spain, the trivium and quadrivium were taught by a body of learned men, among whom was the archbishop, Leander. With such diligence did he apply himself to study that in a remarkably short time mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Whether Isidore ever embraced monastic life or not is still an open question, but though he himself may never have been affiliated with any of the religious orders, he esteemed them highly. On his elevation to the episcopate he immediately constituted himself protector of the monks. In 619 he pronounced anathema against any ecclesiastic who should in any way molest the monasteries. 

On the death of Leander, Isidore succeeded to the See of Seville. His long incumbency to this office was spent in a period of disintegration and transition. The ancient institutions and classic learning of the Roman Empire were fast disappearing. In Spain a new civilization was beginning to evolve itself from the blending racial elements that made up its population. For almost two centuries the Goths had been in full control of Spain, and their barbarous manners and contempt of learning threatened greatly to put back her progress in civilization. Realizing that the spiritual as well as the material well-being of the nation depended on the full assimilation of the foreign elements, St. Isidore set himself to the task of welding into a homogeneous nation the various peoples who made up the Hispano-Gothic kingdom. To this end he availed himself of all the resources of religion and education. His efforts were attended with complete success. Arianism, which had taken deep root among the Visigoths, was eradicated, and the new heresy of Acephales was completely stifled at the very outset; religious discipline was everywhere strengthened. Like Leander, he took a most prominent part in the Councils of Toledo and Seville. In all justice it may be said that it was in a great measure due to the enlightened statecraft of these two illustrious brothers the Visigothic legislation, which emanated from these councils, is regarded by modern historians as exercising a most important influence on the beginnings of representative government. Isidore presided over the Second Council of Seville, begun 13 November, 619, in the reign of Sisebut. But it was the Fourth National Council of Toledo that afforded him the opportunity of being of the greatest service to his county. At this council, begun 5 December, 633, all the bishops of Spain were in attendance. St. Isidore, though far advanced in years, presided over its deliberations, and was the originator of most of its enactments. It was at this council and through his influence that a decree was promulgated commanding all bishops to establish seminaries in their Cathedral Cities, along the lines of the school already existing at Seville. Within his own jurisdiction he had availed himself of the resources of education to counteract the growing influence of Gothic barbarism. His was the quickening spirit that animated the educational movement of which Seville was the centre. The study of Greek and Hebrew as well as the liberal arts, was prescribed. Interest in law and medicine was also encouraged. Through the authority of the fourth council this policy of education was made obligatory upon all the bishops of the kingdom. Long before the Arabs had awakened to an appreciation of Greek Philosophy, he had introduced Aristotle to his countrymen. He was the first Christian writer to essay the task of compiling for his co-religionists a summa of universal knowledge. This encyclopedia epitomized all learning, ancient as well as modern. In it many fragments of classical learning are preserved which otherwise had been hopelessly lost. The fame of this work imparted a new impetus to encyclopedic writing, which bore abundant fruit in the subsequent centuries of the Middle Ages. His style, though simple and lucid, cannot be said to be classical. It discloses most of the imperfections peculiar to all ages of transition. It particularly reveals a growing Visigothic influence. Arevalo counts in all Isidore’s writing 1640 Spanish words. 

Isidore was the last of the ancient Christian Philosophers, as he was the last of the great Latin Fathers. He was undoubtedly the most learned man of his age and exercised a far-reaching and immeasurable influence on the educational life of the Middle Ages. His contemporary and friend, Braulio, Bishop of Saragossa, regarded him as a man raised up by God to save the Spanish people from the tidal wave of barbarism that threatened to inundate the ancient civilization of Spain, The Eighth Council of Toledo (653) recorded its admiration of his character in these glowing terms: “The extraordinary doctor, the latest ornament of the Catholic Church, the most learned man of the latter ages, always to be named with reverence, Isidore”. This tribute was endorsed by the Fifteenth Council of Toledo, held in 688. 

As a writer, Isidore was prolific and versatile to an extraordinary degree. His voluminous writings may be truly said to constitute the first chapter of Spanish literature. It is not, however, in the capacity of an original and independent writer, but as an indefatigable compiler of all existing knowledge, that literature is most deeply indebted to him. The most important and by far the best-known of all his writings is the “Etymologiae”, or “Origines”, as it is sometimes called. This work takes its name from the subject-matter of one of its constituent books. It was written shortly before his death, in the full maturity of his wonderful scholarship, at the request. of his friend Braulio, Bishop of Saragossa. It is a vast storehouse in which is gathered, systematized, and condensed, all the learning possessed by his time. Throughout the greater part of the Middle Ages it was the textbook most in use in educational institutions. So highly was it regarded as a depository of classical learning that in a great measure, it superseded the use of the individual works of the classics themselves. Not even the Renaissance seemed to diminish the high esteem in which it was held, and according to Arevalo, it was printed ten times between 1470 and 1529. Besides these numerous reprints, the popularity of the “Etymologiae” gave rise to many inferior imitations. It furnishes, abundant evidence that the writer possessed a most intimate knowledge of the Greek and Latin poets. In all, he quotes from one hundred and fifty-four authors, Christian and pagan. Many of these he had read in the originals and the others he consulted in current compilations. In style this encyclopedic work is concise and clear and in order, admirable. Braulio, to whom Isidore sent it for correction, and to whom he dedicated it, divided it into twenty books. 

The first three of these books are taken up with the trivium and quadrivium. The entire first book is devoted to grammar, including metre. Imitating the example of Cassiodorus and Boethius he preserves the logical tradition of the schools by reserving the second book for rhetoric and dialectic. Book four, treats of medicine and libraries; book five, of law and chronology; book six, of ecclesiastical books and offices; book seven, of God and of the heavenly and earthly hierarchies; book eight, of the Church and of the sects, of which latter he numbers no less than sixty-eight; book nine, of languages, peoples, kingdoms, and official titles; book ten, of etymology: book eleven, of man; book twelve, of beasts and birds; book thirteen, of the world and its parts; book fourteen, of physical geography; book fifteen, of public buildings and roadmaking; book sixteen, of stones and metals; book seventeen, of agriculture; book eighteen, of the terminology of war, of jurisprudence, and public games; book nineteen, of ships, houses, and clothes; book twenty, of victuals, domestic and agricultural tools, and furniture.

In the second book, dealing with dialectic and rhetoric, Isidore is heavily indebted to translations from the Greek by Boethius. Caelius Aurelianus contributes generously to that part of the fourth book which deals with medicine. Lactantius is the author most extensively quoted in the eleventh book, concerning man. The twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth books are largely based on the writings of Pliny and Solinus; whilst the lost “Prata” of Suetonius seems to have inspired the general plan of the “Etymologiae“, as well as many of its details. 

Similar in its general character to the “Etymologiae” is a work entitled “Libri duo differentiarum“. The two books of which it is composed are entitled respectively, “De differentiis verborum” and “De differentiis rerum“. The former is a dictionary of synonyms, treating of the differences of words with considerable erudition, and not a little ingenuity; the latter an exposition of theological and ascetical ideas, dealing in particular with the, Trinity and with the Divine and human nature of Christ. It suggests, and probably was inspired by, a similar work of Cato’s, It is supplementary to the first two books of the “Etymologiae“. The “Synonyma“, or, as it is sometimes called on account of its peculiar treatment, “Liber lamentationum“, is in a manner illustrative of the first book of the “Differentiae“. It is cast in the form of a dialogue between Man and Reason. The general burden of the dialogue is that Man mourns the condition to which he has been reduced through sin, and Reason comforts him with the knowledge of how he may still realize eternal happiness. The second part of this work consists of a dissertation on vice and virtue. The “De natura rerum” a manual of elementary physics, was composed at the request of King Sisebut, to whom it is dedicated. It treats of astronomy, geography, and miscellanea. It is one of Isidore’s best known books and enjoyed a wide popularity during the Middle Ages. The authenticity of “De ordine creaturarum” has been questioned by some critics, though apparently without good reason. Arevalo unhesitatingly attributes it to Isidore. It deals with various spiritual and physical questions, such as the Trinity, the consequences of sin, eternity, the ocean, the heavens, and the celestial bodies. 

The subjects of history and biography are represented by three important works. Of these the first, “Chronicon“, is a universal chronicle. In its preface Isidore acknowledges, his indebtedness to Julius Africanus; to St. Jerome’s rendering of Eusebius; and to Victor of Tunnuna. The “Historia de regibus Gothorum, Wandalorum, et Suevorum” concerns itself chiefly with the Gothic kings whose conquests and government deeply influenced the civilization of Spain. The history of the Vandals and the Suevi is treated in two short appendixes. This work is regarded as the chief authority on Gothic history in the West. It contains the interesting statement that the Goths descended from Gog and Magog. Like the other Historical writings of Isidore, it is largely based on earlier works of history, of which it is a compendium- It has come down to us in two recensions, one of which ends at the death of Sisebut (621), and the other continues to the fifth year of the reign of Swintila, his successor. “De viris illustribus” is a work of Christian biography and constitutes a most interesting chapter in the literature of patrology. To the number of illustrious writers mentioned therein Braulio added the name of Isidore himself. A short appendix containing a list of Spanish theologians was added by Braulio’s disciple, Ildephonsus of Toledo. It is the continuation of the work of Gennadius, a Semipelagian priest of Marseilles, who wrote between 467 and 480. This work of Gennadius was in turn, but the continuation of the work of St. Jerome. 

[ Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia ]

So, how does Saint Isidore of Seville become the patron saint for the Internet? The Observation Service for Internet, who drew it’s mission from the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, researched the Internet and related technologies to select a patron saint that best reflects the concerns and ideals of computer designers, programmers and users. The saint chosen by the Observation Service for Internet was Saint Isidore. “The saint who wrote the well-known ‘Etymologies’ (a type of dictionary), gave his work a structure akin to that of the database. He began a system of thought known today as ‘flashes;’ it is very modern, notwithstanding the fact it was discovered in the sixth century. Saint Isidore accomplished his work with great coherence: it is complete and its features are complementary in themselves.

ST EXPEDITE

Expeditus with his typical iconographical attributes

Reference

A World Of Pandemics: Part IV

How Humanity’s Response To Epidemic Disease Has Stayed The Same Throughout History

For millennia, societies have faced destructive epidemics that caused a major loss of life. Although the germs that cause epidemics change over time, and people may pretend humanity has too, responses to epidemics show startling similarities across centuries. During Justinian’s Plague, 40% of Constantinople’s population perished. When the plague of Athens struck, it took out up to 30% of the city. And when the Black Death swept Europe in the 14th century, it ended the lives of millions, with population losses of over 50% in some areas. Even epidemics with lower mortality rates cause major disruptions, like the Spanish flu of 1918. But regardless of era or disease, people have shown many of the same responses: flee from the source of the danger, look for a scapegoat, propagate pseudoscientific cures, and question scientific authority.  

In a time of crisis all bets are off; we fall into the most primal fears and patterns. And though people will do what they can to save themselves, not all behaviors are bad. Some may even better prepare humanity for future epidemics and crises.

People Try To Find A Scapegoat, Leading To Instances Of Extreme Prejudice And Racism

Photo: Michel Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When epidemics spread, communities often look for a scapegoat. During the Black Death, Europeans blamed Jewish communities for spreading the disease. One chronicle reported, “Death went from one end of the earth to the other, on that side and this side of the sea . . . In some lands everyone died so that no one was left.”

In Strasbourg, the plague took out thousands, and Christians blamed the city’s Jewish population. “On Saturday – that was St. Valentine’s Day – they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform,” the chronicle recorded. “There were about 2,000 people.” The same happened in other cities. “In some towns they burnt the Jews after a trial, in others, without a trial.”

Just as the Jews became scapegoats during the plague, racism against Chinese people increased during the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2020 coronavirus epidemic because they both originated in China. In New York City, during the 2020 epidemic, tourists have even avoided Chinese restaurants for fear of catching the virus despite there being no evidence to suggest people of East Asian origin are more likely to spread the disease.

These are not the only cases in modern history, however, and people of East Asian origin are not the only targets of prejudice. During the Ebola outbreak of 2015, people from West Africa were targets of xenophobia; while the LGBTQ+ community was stigamatized during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. 

People Peddle Pseudoscientific Cures And Spread Disinformation

Photo: Pluto Water Company/Wikimedia Commons/Public Doma

In 1900, the bubonic plague reached the shores of America. An outbreak in San Francisco threatened to spread the disease. Doctors warned that bacteria spread the plague, but government officials undermined their efforts by questioning the science.

In California, Governor Henry Gage was skeptical about germ theory. He couldn’t personally see the bacteria that caused plague, and thus denied its existence. As the plague swept through Chinatown, white San Franciscans claimed they were immune from the disease, blaming its spread on poor hygiene. But they, too, soon faced a plague epidemic, regardless of their scientific skepticism and denial. 

Similarly, during Justinian’s Plague in the sixth century, people turned to cures with no basis in science. Some claimed taking cold baths protected people from plague, while others sold magic amulets. 

Similar pseudoscientific claims continue into the 21st. During the 2015 Zika virus epidemic a rash of conspiracy theories made their way through social media platforms. One such claim blamed one of the viruses symptoms, microcephaly, a condition which causes babies’ heads and brains to develop abnormally, on MMR and DTAP vaccines in an effort for pharmaceutical companies to profit off of Zika vaccines. 

Psedoscientific claims can cause adverse effects to individual and societal health. In the case of the Zika virus, doctors and scholars looking to limit the disease’s reach claimed the disinformation threatened the legitimacy of healthcare institutions, potentially exposing more people to the disease as people refused to trust healthcare professionals. In other cases, the pseudoscientific claims and cures, like drinking bleach, have caused more direct health issues.

Due To Extreme Population Loss, Affected States Experience A Loss In Military And Political Strength

Photo: Edward A. “Doc” Rogers/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the sixth century, the Byzantine Empire experienced a horrific plague that caused a massive drop in population. Under the Emperor Justinian, the Byzantines had expanded their borders and fought to regain parts of the western Roman Empire. But Justinian’s Plague threatened to destroy the empire.

Thanks to population loss, the Byzantines could no longer defend their overseas territories. In addition to the military losses, the Byzantines also endured economic and administrative problems that decreased the empire’s political power. Though the empire survived the plague, it never again achieved the reach it had under Justinian.

Justinian’s Plague was not the only Ancient historical case. In the fifth century BCE, the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta faced each other through a nearly 30-year war. During the second year of the war, however, while Sparta had laid siege on the Athens, the defending city was swept by an unknown epidemic disease, which ended a third of its entire population including the states leader, Pericles. 

Some historians and scholars have attributed this unexpected loss of life to Athens’s ultimate defeat and the eventual decline of Ancient Greece’s cultural output. Others would not go that far, citing Athens’s eventual regrowth and victories throughout the battles, but they do agree the city state did lose prestige and power due to the political aftermath of the disease.

Similarly, historians have attributed Germany’s loss at the end of WWI to the emergence of the Spanish Flu epidemic in the summer of 1918. Beginning the year with a military advantage against the Triple Entente and looking to end the war before American soldiers could be deployed, the Germans launched an offensive in hopes of breaking through enemy lines and reaching Paris. They, however, lost about half a million men due to the virus, making it impossible for the army to make that final charge.

Because They Feel A Personal Responsibility To Help, Healthcare Personnel Experience The Worst Of The Disease

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers often experience high mortality rates during epidemics. The famous plague doctor costume, developed in the 17th century as the bubonic plague continued to ravage Europe, attempted to protect doctors from miasmas, or disease-transmitting clouds. In modern epidemics, doctors wear personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves. 

Due to the close proximity and extended time healthcare personnel spend among epidemic diseases, the high mortality rate among healthcare workers is still the norm despite technological advances.

In the fifth century BCE, Athens experienced a horrific plague that took out one in three Athenians in a single summer. As the Peloponnesian War raged, Athenians battled against an unknown enemy riskier than combat. Doctors experienced an even higher mortality rate during the plague of Athens. That year, according to Thucydides, “Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often.”

But during the 2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, doctors and nurses also perished at a much greater percentage the rest of the population. The World Health Organization attributed the high mortality to fairly regular problems within epidemics, including shortages of both medical supplies and staff, improper use of equipment, and longer than recommended exposure to the disease most often due to a sense of duty to help.

Societies Affected By Major Epidemics Have Resorted To Mass Burial

Photo: S. Tzortzis/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When the Black Death swept across Europe, millions perished in its wake. And the disease’s mortality rate left societies with a troubling logistical problem: How should they dispose of the bodies piling up in the streets?

In Lincolnshire, England, Black Death victims were buried in a mass grave. Discovered in 2013, the grave contains the bodies of nearly 50 people. The community apparently left the grave open and filled it as people perished. According to a journal article in Antiquity, the grave was “filled over the course of several days or weeks.”

Large cities experienced an even more critical problem. According to a 14th century Florentine chronicle, bodies were thrown into deep trenches every night. “The next morning, if there were many [bodies] in the trench, they covered them over with dirt. And then more bodies were put on top of them, with a little more dirt over those; they put layer on layer just like one puts layers of cheese in a lasagna.”

Similar action was taken during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. In 2015, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation contractor looking to widen the 61 Freeway dug into a 2.25 acre field in Schuylkill County, 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Many of the regions residents who perished from the Spanish Flu were found to be buried without caskets. Historians and archaeologists believe there was such a high mortality rate the grave diggers and casket makers could not keep up with the demand, forcing them to unsystematically bury the victims in a large pit.

A Certain Contingent Of People Resort To Hedonism When Death Seems Inevitable

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In an era before people understood bacteria and viruses, epidemics brought even more confusion. And when succumbing to the disease seemed inevitable, some people cast off social restrictions and turned to hedonism.

Boccaccio described the response to the Black Death in Florence. Some shunned the sick and avoided any contact with them. “There were those who thought that to live temperately and avoid all excess would count for much,” Boccaccio related. These people secluded themselves from society while “eating and drinking moderately.” 

Others took the opposite tactic. They believed “that to drink freely, frequent places of public resort, and take their pleasure with song and revel, sparing to satisfy no appetite, and to laugh and mock at no event, was the sovereign remedy for so great an evil.”

These hedonists traveled from tavern to tavern, “drinking with an entire disregard of rule or measure.” 

Boccaccio reported that many of the hedonists perished – but so did those who chose to live moderately.

Similar behavior transpired during the Plague of Athens in the 430 BCE. According to Thucydides:

Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property.

So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honorable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.

In The Wake Of Epidemics, Artists Focus On Macabre Themes

Photo: Schedel’s Chronicarum/Wikimedia Commons/Public Dom

Throughout history, epidemics shape culture as well as society. After living through an epidemic, artists in many eras turn to macabre themes. 

During the Black Death, artists emphasized the end of life itself. Historian Frank M. Snowden says that the plague “had a transformative effect on the iconography of European art.”

Artists drew the “dance of death,” showing skeletons reveling, and also emphasized perishing through including hourglasses in their art. Art reminded viewers that there was no escape from the inevitable.

People Change Their Personal Religious Beliefs And Practices

Photo: Elihu Vedder/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domai

A dangerous epidemic can either shake people’s faith or reinforce it. During the Black Death, Europeans worried the disease had been sent by God as a punishment for their sins. Although many flocked to church for protection, faith didn’t protect Europeans from the plague. 

In the 14th century, the plague swept through religious communities, wiping out entire monasteries and convents. The pope himself withdrew from society instead of stepping up as a religious leader. Zealots like the flagellants swept across the continent, atoning for sin by publicly whipping themselves.

During modern epidemics, backed by knowledge of germ theory, religious communities modify traditions to stop the spread of disease. Others simply stop attending church to avoid exposure to large crowds.

Societies Isolate And Quarantine Those Infected

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

For centuries, people separated the sick from the healthy. The Old Testament even lists rules for isolating lepers. 

But quarantines in the modern sense began in the 14th century during the bubonic plague. Venice, a trade hub in the Mediterranean, established the first quarantine by banning ships from the city for 40 days after arriving. Our word for “quarantine” comes from the Italian word “quaranta” which means 40. 

The idea quickly spread. In the second major plague outbreak in 1374, Milan adopted a quasi-quarantine by sending plague victims to a field outside the city, where they remained until they recovered or perished. The coastal town of Ragusa on the Dalmatian coast created its own quarantine station, an idea that quickly caught on. Several islands in the Venetian lagoon were used as quarantine stations for centuries.

Quarantines continued into the 20th century. During the Spanish flu, one city protected itself from influenza by shutting down the roads and quarantining anyone who arrived by trains. In that city, Gunnison, Colorado, no one perished from influenza.

People Practice Healthier Behaviors

Photo: Rensselaer County (New York) Tuberculosis Association/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domai

Educating the public about the spread of disease has been an important tool in fighting epidemics. In the early 20th century, public health campaigns warned people not to carelessly spit, cough, or sneeze, since these helped spread infectious diseases like influenza.

In the 1980s, public education was an important tool in fighting the AIDs epidemic. To slow the spread of the disease, these campaigns focused on changing at-risk behavior. These efforts warned against sharing needles or having unprotected sex. After peaking in the early 1990s, the number of HIV cases in the US dropped in large part thanks to public education.

People Migrate En Masse To Escape The Disease

Photo: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

During epidemics, large groups of people often migrate to avoid disease. Boccaccio’s Decameron tells the story of Italians who fled Florence during the plague. 

In 14th century Egypt, the bubonic plague destroyed villages and forced many from rural areas to migrate into Cairo. In one district in Upper Egypt, a survey counted 6,000 workers in the fields before the plague. Thanks to those perishing and migrating, only 116 laborers remained after the plague. 

Similarly, in January 2020, about 5 million people left the city of Wuhan, China, before the lockdown. According to Mayor Zhou Xianwang, millions fled days before the quarantine went into place. However, migrants fleeing an epidemic potentially spread the disease, undoing the impact of quarantines.

While Bad For The Economy In The Short Term, Epidemics Tend To Bring Positive Long-Term Economic Changes 

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the short term, epidemics bring massive economic disruptions. During Justinian’s Plague, trade nearly came to a halt and agricultural prices soared thanks to fewer farmers. In Constantinople, where up to 40% of the population perished, the Byzantine Empire faced an economic crisis when tax revenues collapsed. 

During the Black Death, the high mortality rate meant fewer laborers in the fields. In the short term, that meant higher prices. The bubonic plague, however, brought some unexpected long-term improvements to Europe’s economy. Thanks to a labor shortage, wages rose in the decades after the plague. In England, wages roughly doubled. In Suffolk, laborers made 67% more for reaping after the Black Death. 

Increased wages for the laboring classes meant higher spending and a greater standard of living. Agricultural workers could suddenly afford “luxury” items like butter. In cities, people benefited from more disposable income. In effect, the Black Death redistributed wealth from the aristocrats to the peasants and urban workers, helping drive Europe’s economic engine for centuries.

Reference

A World of Pandemics: Part III

The Bubonic Plague Ravaged San Francisco In The 1900s—And The Government Tried A Massive Cover Up 

The San Francisco bubonic plague outbreak was one of the biggest health crises — and controversies — of the 20th-century United States. The plague was a disease most thought had disappeared with the medieval period, but when it resurfaced, it became one of the worst epidemics in US history. The state of California was forced to contend with an illness not yet entirely understood, as government officials and the press actively covered it up. Not only did they have to pioneer treatments for the bubonic plague, but the entire problem was also wrapped up in anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Chinese racism. Some people even referred to it as the San Francisco Chinatown plague, implying a problem specific to the Chinese residents of the city. 

But that wasn’t the case. Blaming a select group of people meant that the cause itself — flea-infested rats carrying the same strain of plague causing deaths in China — went unaddressed. The San Francisco plague death toll rose, taking the lives of many of the city’s underprivileged residents. It wasn’t until a second plague swept the city, this time primarily affecting San Francisco’s white population and spreading to further areas of the US, that the root cause was identified and put to rest. While modern-day humanity still deals with tragedy incurred by the flu, the plague of the early 1900s incited racist tension and social horror simply because of the ignorance of its causes and the inexplicable death it left in its wake.

The San Francisco Plague Was The First Major Plague Outbreak In The Continental US

Photo: Arnold Böcklin/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Though the San Francisco plague was hardly the first major illness that residents of the continental US had to address, it was the first major outbreak of the plague. The illness — named the Black Plague or the Black Death when it ravaged Europe in the 1300s and caused some 50 million deaths — made a comeback in the 1800s, seriously affecting China and much of east Asia.

Because of global trade and increasing numbers of people emigrating and immigrating worldwide, it was only a matter of time before epidemics began to spread. However, people did not yet understand exactly how the disease was transmitted — many believed it spread through open wounds, food, or the “miasma” theory, which claimed that diseases like the plague spread through “bad air.” Because of these conflicting, erroneous theories, the world wasn’t prepared to respond to a wide-scale epidemic. 

The First San Francisco Plague Victim Was A Chinese Immigrant

Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The first person to die in the San Francisco plague was Wong Chut King, a lumber salesman and Chinese immigrant who was found unconscious in the flophouse where he lived after suffering an intense fever. In a morbidly preemptive move, he was brought to a nearby coffin shop where he died.

Examination of his body revealed swollen lymph nodes — called buboes, hence the disease’s name — consistent with a plague infection, as well as an insect bite. Flea transmission was not yet a popular theory to explain plague infection, so while it was noted, the report did nothing to quell the subsequently rampant xenophobic explanations for the disease. When microscopic investigation revealed plague bacteria in Wong Chut King’s blood, Chinatown was quarantined to stop the spread, though the fleas and rats that carried the disease were not hindered by arbitrary barriers.

The Outbreak Centered On San Francisco’s Chinatown District

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

San Francisco’s plague outbreak was concentrated in the Chinatown district, just a few blocks from what is now the Port of San Francisco. Because Chinatown was particularly overpopulated, had poor sanitation, and had many people living in poor conditions, those features were blamed for the outbreak rather than the actual cause: flea-ridden rats brought from plague-stricken China on the ships that came to the harbor. Instead of treating the cause, the city quarantined its Chinese residents.

But quarantines don’t stop rats, and the disease continued to spread outside of the quarantined zones. Because conditions were poor, and racism was rampant, the quarantined residents didn’t get proper medical treatment. Thus, the concentration of infected people, fleas, and rats could grow, leading to even more infections. 

Rats From China Probably Carried The Plague To America On Ships

Photo: Arnold Genthe/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, scientists and medical professionals weren’t yet sure what caused the plague. The miasma theory, which suggested the disease was spread through “bad air,” was popular, as were suggestions that the plague might travel through contaminated food or open wounds. The bubonic plague is actually transmitted via flea bite, with the carrier fleas often living on rats.

China was dealing with a plague outbreak of its own in the mid-late 1850s, which soon made its way to Hong Kong. Since Chinese immigrants and imports commonly made the journey to San Francisco, it was only a matter of time before the plague reached American soil.

Racism Was Undoubtedly A Factor In The Plague’s Outbreak

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The plague itself was a problem, but anti-immigrant sentiment and racism against Chinese people exacerbated the issue. Around this same time, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese people who were not merchants from immigrating to the US, was extended. Rampant, unfounded anti-Chinese sentiment promoted racist policy, which in turn validated racist viewpoints because of state-sanctioned rules.

In the initial quarantine, white people in Chinatown were told to leave while Chinese residents were forced to stay. Miasma theory, which posited the disease was spread via contact with contaminated air, was blamed for the plague in Chinatown. 

Rather than the poor sanitation being a symptom of the area’s poverty, it was instead said to be evidence that the Chinese people themselves were the problem. Some went so far as to claim that a rice-based diet made them susceptible to the plague.

San Francisco’s Governor Denied The Outbreak Out Of Fear It Would Hurt The City’s Reputation

Photo: Bain News Service, publisher/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to stopping the plague’s initial four-year hold on San Francisco was the city government. The governor, Henry Gage, actively denied the city had a problem, fearing it would hurt tourism and trade. Worse, he didn’t just deny the problem — he actively thwarted efforts to stop it. Gage claimed funds were being diverted to stop a plague that didn’t exist. He also suggested Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun, who led the quarantine effort, had fabricated or caused the plague himself by injecting Chinese residents with the disease.

Though there was little help available for victims, Gage’s denial — as well as his active attempts to stoke tension between Kinyoun’s efforts and the Chinese people whose civil rights were being violated — ensured the plague continued to ravage the city’s ostracized citizens.

The City Ran A Defamation Campaign Against The Officer Who Discovered The Outbreak

Photo: NIAID/Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Dr. Joseph James Kinyoun was the leader of the plague eradication movement, but, due to both concentrated misinformation efforts and lack of scientific information, his plans to stop the plague were thwarted. Kinyoun was unsure how to curtail the plague’s spread, and he ineffectively quarantined Chinatown in the hopes that it would keep the infection isolated. When animals were infected with the disease and didn’t immediately die, the quarantine was lifted, and the city government, particularly Governor Henry Gage, seized on it as proof that Kinyoun had no idea what he was doing. He warned that shipments of goods could spread the illness out of San Francisco and around the country, leading to other states refusing to accept goods from California. 

Gage responded to the lost profits by claiming Kinyoun himself had created the plague by injecting Chinese corpses. Furthermore, he stoked the flames of the poor treatment Chinese people were receiving by encouraging them to fight back. Combined with Kinyoun’s reportedly uptight demeanor, which did not mesh well with the Chinese population he was meant to be helping, his efforts were undercut, and he was eventually transferred. The plague raged on until Dr. Rupert Blue replaced Kinyoun and shifted the treatment from quarantine to pest eradication.

Governor Gage’s Denial Helped Seal His Loss In The Elections

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Governor Gage’s actions were not without consequences. Anti-Chinese sentiment, along with the tensions that arose from the quarantine and Gage’s efforts to create a divide between health officials and Chinese residents most threatened by the outbreak, meant that people hid the deceased bodies of plague victims, furthering the infectious spread. People continued to get sick and die, and not just in Chinatown.

Though the disease was concentrated in the slums, it wasn’t thwarted by barbed-wire quarantines. As it became increasingly clear that the illness was real, the citizens of San Francisco realized Gage’s denial and shifting of the blame to Dr. Joseph Kinyoun were actively hurting people. The state’s conservative party refused his nomination, and Gage left office in 1903. He continued to blame Kinyoun for the barring of California goods in other states and the subsequent economic hardship.

The next governor, George Pardee, shared Gage’s concerns regarding public address of the situation but immediately took ownership of the situation. He removed health officials from the case and worked privately to provide medical attention, research, and eradication of the plague.

Some Of The City’s Treatments Actually Spread The Disease Further

Because the plague was not well understood, many of the treatments San Francisco health officials initially used to combat the illness actually made things worse. The quarantine, the first line of defense when the plague’s initial victim was found, concentrated the Chinese-American population in an area with poor sanitation and did nothing for the actual cause of the plague — the rats that were drawn there precisely because of the poor sanitation. The city also used carbolic acid in an attempt to rid the air of the alleged miasma, which drove rats out of sewers and into the streets carrying their plague-riddle fleas with them.

In addition, because relations between the Chinese people of San Francisco and the health officials were so poor, people in Chinatown started hiding the bodies of the deceased. Without proper disposal, the health crisis worsened. Nobody knew that the disease was mostly transmitted through flea bites, thus, nobody was doing anything to stop the spread. All of these factors combined to make the plague even worse.

Another Outbreak Occurred After The 1906 Earthquake

Photo: NPS/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The first plague outbreak occurred from 1900 to 1904, but it wasn’t the last to affect San Francisco in the early 1900s. A second outbreak occurred in 1906 following the enormous San Francisco earthquake, which killed some 3,000 people and displaced 250,000 more. But people weren’t the only ones displaced.

As humans fled their damaged homes, so did infected rats. As they spread, the chaos of the post-earthquake city and the concentration of people in refugee camps meant that the illness was allowed to spread once again. This outbreak was even stronger than the first, but it was more quickly contained thanks to scientific advancements between 1904 and 1906. 

The Second Outbreak Was Dealt With Far More Efficiently

Photo: Unknown/National Library Of Medicine, History Of Medicine Images Collection/Public Domain

While the second outbreak of plague hit San Francisco just two short years after the first one, it was handled much more quickly. Scientific advancements meant people better understood the plague’s transmission, and instead of quarantining infected people, Dr. Joseph Kinyoun’s replacement, Dr. Rupert Blue, targeted the rats. They were rounded up in great rat-catching efforts thanks to financial bounties, which ultimately prevented some of the spread and allowed scientists to test and kill infected rats. 

Not only was the threat identified before the plague’s second time around, but the city government also could no longer scapegoat the Chinese residents of the city: all the victims of the second plague were white. Though anti-Chinese sentiment was still prominent, the blame couldn’t be shifted — it wasn’t miasma, diet, or any xenophobic cause, which meant it had to be dealt with scientifically and medically.

119 People Died In The First Outbreak

Photo: ralph repo/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

119 people died during the San Francisco plague outbreak, many of them in the concentrated, quarantined region of Chinatown. Without access to health professionals and pest control, infected victims spread the plague inadvertently but rapidly. Although it’s certainly a deadly disease, the city’s failure to isolate the actual cause and treat infected people ensured its spread and ability to affect more people.

Though it’s not the absolute deadliest outbreak in US history — the introduction of smallpox by European settlers killed almost all indigenous people in what is now North America, for example — the San Francisco plague is one that could have been prevented or had its harm minimized if those in authority had taken action.

Instead, it was allowed to fester in the city’s most impoverished communities, sowing further anti-Chinese sentiment. 

Honolulu’s Chinatown Burned To The Ground When Authorities Attempted To Eradicate The Plague

Photo: Historic American Buildings Survey /Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The plague resurfaced in China on the backs of rats in the 1850s and wound up in Hong Kong. Chinese immigrants and imports often passed this way en route to San Franciso via port stopovers in Hawaii. Following one ship’s stop in Hawaii in 1899, a case of the plague broke out in the Honolulu Chinatown, spreading quickly to four more people. In an attempt to contain the plague and eradicate the conditions fostering its rapid spread, The Hawaii Board of Health isolated the victims and quarantined 14 blocks of the area complete with military guards. According to historical record, “To clear contaminated areas, the Board set 41 controlled fires, cleaned and disinfected buildings, burned garbage, filled old cesspools and dug new ones.”

However, when this failed to quell the problem and new cases of the plague arose, the Board set another fire which quickly spun out of control and resulted in all of Honolulu’s Chinatown burning to the ground. The problematic ships nonetheless continued to San Francisco where, because people on the ships did not show plague symptoms, they were allowed to dock. Along with humans also disembarked infected rats, carrying the disease straight into the port city.

Reference

A World of Pandemics: Part II

The Mysterious ‘Sleeping Sickness’ That Plagued New York In The 1920s

Medical science has come a long way in the last hundred years, but that doesn’t mean every medical mystery has been solved. The cause of the mysterious sleeping sickness that struck New York in the 1920s, Encephalitis lethargica, remains unsolved to this day.

Originally called “the sleeping sickness” because the first few cases involved active people spontaneously falling asleep, it had a wide variety of symptoms and presentations. Some neurologists and pathologists believed it was an unusual manifestation of a concurrent flu epidemic, while others believed it was completely unrelated. It was also theorized that the mysterious illness was related to the polio virus, but nothing conclusive has been proven. This is despite the fact that the disease still pops up in isolated cases around the world.

From its first reported cases in 1915 to its abatement in the 1930s, Encephalitis lethargica is estimated to have infected half a million people in Europe alone. Those who survived often had crippling side effects, with some remaining borderline catatonic for the rest of their lives.

The sleeping sickness of the 1920s was never solved, but it has drawn the attention of scientists for years, including Oliver Sacks, whose work on the disease was adapted into the film Awakenings starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. 

During The 1920s And ’30s, The ‘Sleeping Sickness’ Perplexed Doctors Around The World

Photo:  Otis Historical Archives/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.

In 1917, as WWI brought mass destruction like the world had never seen, two epidemics began tearing through the shell-shocked world. The first, which would become known as the Spanish Flu of 1918, remains one of the worst pandemics in human history, wiping out an estimated 50 million people and affecting up to half a billion. While this crisis understandably took precedence, it was accompanied by a lesser-known but far more perplexing virus: the sleeping sickness.

The sleeping sickness is believed to have originated in Romania in 1915, but WWI disguised its true impact in Europe. It became more noticeable in New York, and doctors across Europe scrambled to identify the disease. There was plenty of confusion, but no clear answers.

It Was First Described By The Prolific Austrian Neurologist Constantin von Economo

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domai

Due to the varied presentations of the disease, the overwhelming demands of WWI, and the appearance of other epidemics around the same time, many doctors treated individual cases of Encephalitis lethargica without realizing they were dealing with a wholly new illness. It took the work of Austrian neurologist Constantin von Economo to fully isolate and categorize the disease. 

Economo was a wealthy aristocrat and a Renaissance man. He was the first Austrian man to hold the equivalent of a pilot’s license, and he was trained as an engineer before he moved on to psychiatry. 

Economo gave the disease its name, based on what he determined to be its principal manifestation: lethargy and catatonia. In a series of monographs that are studied to this day, he argued his case on the nature of the disease from its categorization as encephalitis (an illness resulting from inflammation of the brain) to its varied pathologies.

Some Of The Afflicted Reported Feeling No Discomfort In Their Sleep

Photo: Harris & Ewing/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The sleeping sickness prompted, among other things, an examination of the nature of sleep and the difference between sleep and catatonia. However, there was a wide array of experiences reported, some of which were quite pleasant. Take this account, written by Eleanore Carey, who suffered from the illness in 1923:

After two months of illness I was in little pain, in fact… It was so heavenly just to be allowed to sleep, but these people around me seemed determined to prevent my being comfortable! When the idea finally crept through my sleeping brain that I must waken, it seemed to be a physical impossibility. I wanted to be obliging, but I just could not. 

Other victims reported dreams and vivid hallucinations. Often, it was possible to wake the patient, but only for a few moments before they succumbed to sleep again.

Some Victims Perished Within Days, While Others Slowly Recovered

During the course of the epidemic, most doctors kept and compared rigorous notes. This allows us to examine a wide variety of case histories, although it is difficult to derive clarity from them because of the wide range of symptoms. However, one thing that does emerge is the unpredictable nature of the sleeping sickness.

One case study details a woman who suffered the sleeping sickness in 1917. She came to the clinic exhausted, and then slid further into somnolence. These symptoms were accompanied by a fever and the paralysis of her right arm. This woman seemed lucky, as her condition slowly improved, and two months later, she was discharged from the hospital with no signs of fever or paralysis. Unfortunately, she passed a month afterward due to pneumonia.

However, not everyone was lucky enough to stage a partial recovery. One young boy was brought to a clinic on April 20 already in a comatose state. He passed on April 28. Both of these cases were common, and there was no known indicator of who might survive and who might not.

Many Who ‘Recovered’ Developed Disabilities Later In Life

During its acute phase, the disease caused somnolence, lethargy, paralysis, fever, and sometimes ended the patient altogether. Some patients, however, made a full recovery, often without any treatment. While this must have come as a relief, the disease was not quite finished with them.

After recovery, many of these patients developed some form of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous disorder that often causes the loss of various forms of muscular control. Parkinson’s can include wide variety of symptoms, and one of the most extreme forms was often seen in survivors of the sleeping sickness: akinesia.

Essentially, this means total body paralysis. Some of these patients remained in a paralytic coma for many years. Robert De Niro’s character in Awakenings, Leonard Lowe, is exactly this sort of patient.

Some Survivors Remained In A Sleep-Like State For Years

At various points during a case of Encephalitis lethargica, it is possible for the patient to fall into a deep, akinetic coma. Chiefly, this was experienced by people who thought they had completely survived the disease, only to develop a worsening case of Parkinson’s years later that culminated in the coma.

Because the cause of the disease was unknown, these comas were thought to be irreversible, and those who suffered them were largely forgotten, as long-term coma patients often are. However, when Oliver Sacks began treating them with L-DOPA, some of them were able to interact with the world for the first time in 40 or more years.

Awakenings’ Showed What Happened To Those Who Temporarily Recovered

Photo: Awakenings/Columbia Pictures

Overshadowed as it was by the Spanish Flu and WWI, the sleeping sickness didn’t really come to the public eye until the renowned British neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote his groundbreaking Awakenings, a book that movingly detailed his interactions with patients who suffered from the disease. Sacks was responsible for the proliferation of L-Dopa, the medication that awakened many of these patients. In the book, he describes the challenges of bringing people from the 1920s into the 1960s.

The book was a massive success, and is still considered one of the best pieces of medical nonfiction ever written. It should come as little surprise, then, that it was adapted into a major Hollywood motion picture, starring Robin Williams as a fictionalized version of Sacks, and Robert De Niro as the man who wakes up in a new decade. After it was released, Roger Ebert wrote:

What both the movie and the book convey is the immense courage of the patients and the profound experience of their doctors, as in a small way they reexperienced what it means to be born, to open your eyes and discover to your astonishment that “you” are alive.

Nobody Knows What Caused It

Despite Oliver Sacks’s groundbreaking work with the treatment L-DOPA, there remains no complete cure for Encephalitis lethargica, as the medication often only provides temporary relief. It is perhaps unsurprising that there is no cure, because scientists don’t really understand what causes the sleeping sickness in the first place.

During the outbreak, there were many different theories as to the cause. When the disease first appeared in England, doctors believed that it was a form of botulism. However, botulism is the result of detectable bacteria, and the bacteria simply was not present. Many other theories were proposed regarding the mystifying disease.

At the end of the day, the truth is simply unknown. Papers are still written advancing various theories, but none have been proven or widely accepted.

Cases Continue To Pop Up Today

Because of the mysteries surrounding the illness, it is difficult to truly define when it began and ended. It is also difficult to identify whether there have been any new cases, although conventional wisdom says that at least a few more cases have popped up.

In 2015, a paper was published about a young boy who had contracted HIV. However, when he came to the hospital, he quickly developed symptoms similar to Encephalitis lethargica: lethargy, mutism, and muscular weakness of the optical nerves. There are numerous examples of similar cases, but cautious doctors are reluctant to label them as sleeping sickness.

Some Believe Adolf Hitler’s Parkinson’s Disease Was An Aftereffect Of The Sleeping Sickness

Photo: Heinrich Hoffman/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Adolf Hitler may be one of the most over-diagnosed individuals in human history. Due to his morphine addiction, his illness-plagued youth, and his high profile, modern doctors love to retroactively diagnose him with everything from borderline personality disorder to irritable bowel syndrome. While many of these assumptions are sensationalist and based on wild assumptions, there has emerged something of a consensus that the German dictator could well have suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

If that’s true, it is likely that he also suffered from the sleeping sickness in his youth. Due to the relatively late onset of his Parkinson’s disease and his age at the time of the epidemic, the sleeping sickness makes a great deal of sense as the source of his Parkinson’s. A medical paper also makes the case based on his symptoms:

Hitler had oculogyric crises [deviation of the eyes], phenomena only associated with post-encephalitic parkinsonism. In addition, he had dystonic facial spasms, palilalia and a sleep disorder, phenomena more likely to be associated with post-encephalitic than idiopathic parkinsonism.

President Wilson May Have Contracted It In 1919

Photo: Harris & Ewing/Wikimedia Commons/Public D

It is always dicey to retroactively diagnose historical figures, due to both the lack of contemporaneous material and our own modern biases. This is made doubly difficult in the case of someone like Woodrow Wilson, who had a battalion of health issues independent of whatever we may diagnose him with today.

However, that hasn’t stopped a number of modern doctors and pathologists from using historical sources and medical records to diagnose Wilson as a sufferer of Encephalitis lethargica. Edwin Weinstein, one of Wilson’s most prominent biographers, believes that a complicated series of medical disasters accounted for Wilson’s famously altered behavior during the peace negotiations at the end of WWI.

Weinstein believes that after a number of strokes throughout his life, Wilson contracted the flu, which left him vulnerable to the sleeping sickness. Regardless, Wilson didn’t have long to live after the 1919 Peace Conference; he passed five years later in 1924.

Reference

A World of Pandemics: Part I

Inside The Brutal Realities of the Spanish Flu That Killed 100 Million People

Of all the horrors of World War I, it wasn’t the bombs, bullets, or even the mustard gas that ended up as the greatest killer. In reality, the act of moving that many people around the world turned out to be the most deadly fruit of war. The last year of the war, 1918, saw the most deadly pandemic the world has ever known. With all those millions of soldiers being shipped around the globe, it spread like wildfire.

This was the Spanish influenza pandemic. In terms of sheer numbers killed, the Spanish influenza beats out the Black Death as the king of historical epidemics. The statistics of the Spanish flu are just brutal, and the disease touched every corner of the globe. Survivors tell of heartbreaking scenes of misery and quarantine, and today the flu ranks as one of the worst diseases in history, a reminder of how deadly influenza can really be.

The Pandemic Killed 5% Of The World’s Population

Photo: Stevan Aleksić/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Spanish influenza pandemic killed people on the scale of the fourth rider of the Apocalypse. It is estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1919 alone. To put that into perspective, the four years of WWI only killed 17 million people total. Just in the US, over half a million people were killed by the flu, five times as many Americans as were killed in the war.

The flu infected (but didn’t necessarily kill) even more: about 1/3 of the world’s population was believed to have been infected by some form of the Spanish flu. That’s 500 million people at a time when there were only about 1.5 billion people on the entire planet.

The Disease Targeted Young Adults

Photo: CDC/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The normal victims of the flu are typically babies and really, really old people – like, spare hip, dinner at 4:00 pm kind of old. When a 50 year old dies of the flu, it’s a pretty big deal. And a 25-year-old gym rat might think of the flu as a crummy week or two in bed, but the term “life threatening” wouldn’t even come to mind. The Spanish flu turned all that on its head. Young, healthy guys would get home from work one day feeling a little sluggish, and then get carried off in a body bag the next morning. Suffice it to say, that freaked a lot of people out.

Unlike normal flu viruses, Spanish influenza seemed to target those between 20 and 35. The reason for this is that people born after 1889 had no exposure to anything similar to the 1918 virus strain. Those born before that date had some exposure to a similar flu strain; therefore, they had some immunity. That discovery didn’t come until 2014, though, so people at the time were left guessing why Johnny-six-pack next door just dropped dead while Aunt Gertrude was still going strong.

The First Recorded Outbreak Occured In Kansas

Photo: U.S. Army photographer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Like college basketball champions and the world’s supply of corn, the Spanish flu seems to have come from unassuming Kansas. While the state boasts many fine and comfortable establishments, Fort Riley was not one of them. In 1918, the army camp housed 26,000 men and was described as bone-chilling in the winter and sweltering in the summer. Oh yeah, and they burned tons of manure from the many horses and donkeys on the base, so it probably always smelled like a paper mill.

On March 9, conditions at the base got a lot worse. The cook, Albert Gitchell, reported to the infirmary with a bad cold. By noon, there were over 100 soldiers in the infirmary, apparently suffering from the same malady. In total, 1,127 soldiers came down with the flu, 46 of whom died.

The condition spread to other camps but, given that war was declared, the brass kept a tight grip on the information. Besides, an outbreak of illness among a bunch of men closely quartered in less than ideal living conditions was hardly that unusual.

The Flu Traveled To Europe With American Soldiers

Photo: U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In March of 1918, 84,000 American soldiers were shipped off to Europe. In April, another 118,000 crossed the pond. Along with them, the soldiers brought a chance at victory for the Allied Powers. That, and also the deadly influenza virus.

Imagine that you’ve been living in a muddy trench for the past three years, dodging bullets, ducking artillery, and chasing off rats. Somehow, you are still alive. Finally, some serious reinforcements are coming in, and things are looking up. Then, out of the blue, you catch the worst flu you could possibly imagine. Before you know it, you are lying on an army cot jammed next to a bunch of fellow flu victims, dying in a state of complete delirium because of your high-grade fever.

In the month of June, 31,000 influenza cases were reported in Great Britain. The virus rapidly spread across enemy lines and beyond into Russia, India, and North Africa. By July, the disease had spread across the Pacific to China, Japan, the Philippines, and New Zealand.

Spain Was The First Country To Announce The Epidemic

Photo: Gerardo Chowell, Anton Erkoreka, Cécile Viboud and Beatriz Echeverri-Dávila/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Though Spain was not the first place to be stricken with the illness, it was the first country to openly report it. That is because it was the first country that was not actively involved in WWI to experience the flu’s incredibly high mortality rate. Where other countries (including the US) censored the news for fear of damaging “public morale,” Spain reported on the outbreak freely, which is how the infamous influenza gained the name Spanish flu.

Even Remote Villages Were Not Immune To The Disease

Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

It wasn’t only the large population centers that suffered from outbreaks of the Spanish flu. Even Inuit villages in Alaska suffered from outbreaks of the disease. In some cases, entire villages were completely wiped out from the disease. In other cases, all the adults were killed, leaving only orphans behind to fend for themselves.

One such infected village was the small, Inuit town of Brevig Mission, Alaska. The disease claimed the lives of 90% of the town’s Inuit population. It was so bad that the Alaskan Territorial government had to pay gold miners from Nome to go up and bury the bodies. When the miners arrived, they tossed the bodies into a pit two meters deep and covered it with permafrost.

The Second Wave Of The Flu Was Much Deadlier Than The First

Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

By the end of the summer, the first wave of the flu was starting to die down. People who hadn’t been tagged by the disease undoubtedly felt pretty good about themselves, having dodged that bullet. Then the second wave of the pandemic hit.

It began at a naval facility in Boston in September of 1918, and it pretty much wrecked everyone. Around this same time, the flu hit the port towns of Brest, France, and Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was at this point that the situation escalated from standard pandemic to full-blown crisis of biblical proportions.

In the month of October, 195,000 Americans died from the flu. The death rate during the second wave was a full five-times higher than that of the first. The “lucky” ones who escaped the first wave were much more likely to catch the second wave and subsequently die from it. With such high communicability and mortality rates, things quickly got out of hand.

Symptoms Included Turning Blue And Bleeding Internally

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Catching Spanish influenza was not fun. Initial symptoms were similar to normal influenza (fatigue, fever, and headache) but more severe. When the coughing and sneezing set in, things started to get really nasty. People would cough with such force that their abdominal muscles tore.

The flu was so virulent that it would cause internal bleeding around the lungs. People would bleed from their mouths, noses, and sometimes ears. People’s skin would actually turn blue, to the point where it was hard to identify their initial skin color. With all that damage to the lungs, pneumonia set in pretty quickly. People would usually die within a day or two of developing their first symptoms, sometimes mere hours after figuring out they were sick.

They Couldn’t Bury The Bodies Fast Enough

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The world’s worst day is the undertaker’s best day, but the booming coffin industry simply could not keep up with the staggering rate of death caused by the Spanish influenza. We’re talking tens of thousands of people dying in a matter of a month or two…  in just about every big city around the world. To prevent the infectious bodies that were slowly rotting in the morgue corridors from causing secondary infections, many places restored to digging mass graves.

In 2015, a mass grave was rediscovered in Pennsylvania. Located around 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the bodies were uncovered after a heavy rain washed away the topsoil near a highway embankment. There were no coffins, just human bones jutting up from the soil.

The War Had Created A Shortage Of Medical Staff

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Many of the trained medical personnel at the time the Spanish influenza struck had already joined up with the military to help the war effort. Even before America entered the war, many doctors and nurses volunteered to serve in field hospitals through the Red Cross. So when the flu hit, a great deal of those medical resources were tied up in the trenches of Europe.

As a result, many of those tending for the sick at home were volunteers. They had varying degrees of experience in medicine, from retired doctors pulled back into service to medical students who were still in training.

In some cases, women whose only medical experience was tending to their families found themselves nursing for entire communities. These volunteers risked and sometimes gave their lives caring for the infectious sick. In many cases, their care was the difference between life and death for flu victims.

In The US, Philadelphia Had The Highest Rate Of Sickness And Death

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Philadelphia really dropped the ball on this one. City officials knew about the second-wave outbreak of the flu in Boston; they had even issued a bulletin about the dangers of Spanish influenza as early as July, but they still figured that it was no big deal in late September of 1918. They didn’t even have it listed as a reportable disease. Sh*t was about to get real.

In late September, the public was getting mixed signals about the influenza problem. Assurances were made that the disease was contained to military personnel. Dr. Paul Lewis, director of the Philips Institute of Philadelphia announced that they had identified the cause of influenza (incorrectly of course). Then on September 28, the city threw a massive parade, of all things, where 200,000 people gathered to support the war effort. Within days, hundreds of new influenza cases were being reported. The city was forced to admit that they had a problem. Churches, schools, and theaters were all closed.

Unfortunately, about 75% of the city’s medical personnel were unavailable due to the war. Hospitals quickly became overcrowded, necessitating churches and state armories to double as shelters for the sick. The corpses started piling up, posing a real public health problem. The city appealed to the federal government to send embalmers, and individuals were being conscripted to dig graves for $15 a pop. By the time the epidemic abated in early November, almost 13,000 people were dead.

Public Spitting And Coughing Were Banned

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In some cities, schools, churches, and other public places were closed, and additional quarantine measures were also put into place. The medical community knew enough to realize that public gatherings and bodily fluids contributed to the spread of the disease. Aggressive public information campaigns were disseminated akin to the hand-washing and “cover your cough” campaigns in circulation today.

Perhaps the most hilarious of the public health measures, though, was an ordinance adopted in several locations that banned spitting. In New Castle, Pennsylvania, spitting in public was met with a $1 fine and possible jail time. In all fairness, though, spitting isn’t just bad manners. Apparently, it actually does kill people.

Like The Bubonic Plague, Children Created A Nursery Rhyme About It

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As the Black Death had “Ring Around the Rosey” to commemorate it’s destruction, so too did the Spanish Flu develop a cute diddy.

   I had a little bird
   And its name was Enza.
   I opened the door
   And in-flew-Enza.

The Medical Community Didn’t Understand What Caused The Flu

Photo: Board of Public Health, Victoria/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Spanish flu came around before penicillin and viruses were even discovered. No viral vaccines even existed, let alone one for the flu. The vaccinations that did exist were bacteria-based, and, at the time, people actually thought that influenza was caused by a bacterium called Bacillus Influenzae. Though they may have helped prevent secondary infections in some cases, they had no hope in stopping the viral influenza.

It wasn’t until 1933 that scientists discovered that influenza was caused by a virus. The first vaccine was developed in 1938, but due to the countless strains and mutations of the ever adapting influenza viruses, the vaccine remains a hit-or-miss proposition to this day. Influenza simply mutates too quickly for a vaccine with broad universality to effectively eradicate it.

It Is Literally The Mother Of All Modern Pandemics

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Almost all modern strains of the Influenza A virus descend in some way from the Spanish flu. The 1918 strain was of the H1N1 variety, with its genetic descendants still alive and infectious to this day. Pretty much any flu you get is a mutated version of the 1918 H1N1 virus. The 1918 outbreak, though, was much more infectious and virulent than any other H1N1 strain to date. Part of this has been attributed to a lack of immunity to the strain in the human population of the time.

The Spanish flu taught people at the time a very important lesson that is still applicable today. That is, at any given point, influenza is pretty much just a mutation or two away from a massive blight of death that humans are powerless to stop. That’s something to chew on the next time your employer asks you to come in because, “it’s just a cough.”

Like All Influenza Viruses, It Ultimately Came From Birds

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Ultimately, all human borne influenza originated as avian influenza. Yes, those cute, chirping, balls of feathers are really disease-ridden harbingers of the apocalypse. Sometimes the virus hangs out in some pigs before jumping to humans, giving us the swine flu. There are two key factors that make an influenza strain hit with the pandemic force of the 1918 variety: infectivity and virulence.

In order for a disease to pose the danger of a pandemic, it really needs to be readily transmissible from human to human. While bird flu can sometimes be transferred from birds to humans (or swine flu from pigs to humans), that danger is generally limited to those who work in the food industry. It is only after the influenza strain develops the ability to be transmitted easily between humans that a real pandemic breaks out.

The second factor, virulence, is basically how bad the virus is (how likely is it to kill you). A global pandemic of the sniffles might be inconvenient, but it is hardly something to stay up at night about. A flu that kills over 50% of the people infected by it… well, that’s another story.

These two aspects combined in the Spanish flu in a way that has not been seen since. Certainly, there have been more virulent and more infectious pandemics, but no other pandemic had both these qualities in such a high degree. For example, the H5N1 virus has had periodic outbreaks where the fatality rate is over 50%. That virus, however virulent, is not very infectious as it has not become easily transmittable from human to human. All it takes, though, is a few small mutations.

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