fortune cookie with blue background; photo by Elena koycheva via Unsplash

Outbreak Uptake: Amazing Positives from Pandemic History

March 30, 2020

You may have rolled your eyes when a well-meaning parent or friend reminded you that every cloud has a silver lining, but that seemingly easy advice is not without merit—even in the history of the world’s greatest pandemics. Here we offer a list of surprising positives that resulted from global outbreaks.

Black Death Ended Europe’s System of Serfdom

The Black Death (bubonic plague caused by Yersinia pestis, which incidentally is what Colorado prairie dogs get periodically) that hit Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s killed such a large population that it caused a labor shortage. The labor shortage then caused wages to soar, effectively ending the system of serfdom that had kept peasants in debt bondage and indentured servitude. Additionally, less people meant increased food availability. Some historians also believe that The Black Death cooled the climate by freeing up land and causing reforestation.

portrait of Sir Isaac Newton by Samuel Freeman
Sir Isaac Newton had to leave Cambridge University due to an outbreak of Bubonic Plague. While at home, he saw an apple fall from a tree, which led him to develop the law of gravity.

Bubonic Plague Inspired Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation

The infamous bubonic plague, which first struck Europe and Asia in the 14th century, returned to England in 1665, when Sir Isaac Newton was at Cambridge University. The university closed and Newton returned home to Woolsthorpe Manor, where he probably complained about losing his college experience (I’m embellishing but perhaps not incorrectly). While stuck at home, Newton spent time in his garden—where he watched an apple fall from a tree. This boring quotidian event sparked his famous Law of Universal Gravitation. You can read the account in the very clearly titled Memoir of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life by William Stukeley. 

Spanish Flu Gave Women Jobs (and Ideas)

The 1918 global “Spanish Flu” pandemic (it was called Spanish Flu only because Spain, which was neutral in World War I, openly admitted it was suffering from a disease outbreak) disproportionately killed more men than women. A worker shortage then allowed women to enter the workforce, even in jobs that were traditionally held by men, such as manufacturing. Soon women were asking for equal pay and not long after for voting rights. So the Spanish Flu changed women’s role in society and helped pass the 19thAmendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. 

sled dogs in snow; photo by Catalin Sandru via Unsplash
Twenty dog sled teams traveled more than 670 miles to deliver diphtheria antitoxin to save inhabitants in Nome, Alaska.

Diphtheria Epidemic Launched Iditarod Sled Dog Race

The town of Nome, Alaska, located two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, had a diphtheria epidemic on its hands in the middle of the particularly harsh winter of 1924 – 1925. Doctor Curtis Welch was the only physician serving Nome and its surrounding communities (a population of approximately 10,000 people), home to a large percentage of Alaska Natives who did not have resistance to the disease. After seeing two children die, Dr. Welch sent a telegram to the U.S. Public Health service in Washinton, D.C. It read in part: “AN EPIDEMIC OF DIPHTHERIA IS ALMOST INEVTIABLE HERE STOP I AM IN URGENT NEED OF ONE MILLION UNITS OF DIPHTHERIA ANTITOXIN.” How would anyone get the needed medicine to Nome in the middle of winter? By dog sled. Twenty teams of sled dogs transported the antitoxin vials over 674 miles of ice and snow. The Iditarod Sled Dog Race commemorates the original Nome Serum Run.