As bad as this last year has been, just imagine how bad humanity had it during history’s previous disease disasters. When the five worst pandemics did come to an end, as COVID-19 slowly is, the reasons they fizzled out were surprisingly varied. Sometimes, new and unusual tricks to ward off disease actually worked, even as the public and the government were initially unreceptive. These genius moves may have very well saved the world.
Since the beginning of recorded history, there’ve been five major pandemics. The first three of them were caused by one bacteria, called Yersinia pestis. To say that this microscopic organism was a pest would been an understatement.
Y. pestis first became widely known as the Plague of Justinian. It first broke out in Constantinople in 541 C.E., having come over from Egypt on boats that carried bacteria-infested fleas, who snuck onto the backs of rats who were eating the grain on the ships.
At the time, nobody knew it was the fleas that were making them sick. As Europe, North Africa, and Asia fell ill, they only knew that Justinian, emperor of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, had recently conquered Egypt, so his ships must have had something to do with it.
So, they named the pandemic, which killed an estimated 30-50 million people — possibly half the world’s population at the time — after him in spite, did their best to avoid anyone who was obviously afflicted, and slowly, the disease petered out.
However, the strain was far from eradicated. Eight hundred years later, it struck Europe with a vengeance, and received a new moniker: the Black Death. Though the global population had recovered since the first go-around, Y. pestis wiped out another 200 million lives in just four years.
This time, health officials had gotten a little smarter, having learned from the history books about the previous pandemic’s terrifying effects. They knew the spread could be controlled by staying away from the sick, and by keeping the sick from going near others.
In the major port city of Ragusa, then controlled by the Venetian Republic and now a part of modern-day Croatia, officials were overwhelmed by the amount of sick sailors coming into port, and decided to have the men stay on their ships for forty days once they docked, to prove they weren’t ill.
This forty-day period of isolation, called quarantino after the Venetian word for forty, was the first time metrics had been applied to disease prevention. The method caught on, and it became adapted worldwide into what we know as modern-day quarantine.
Although quarantine practices helped end the Black Death, they frustratingly didn’t keep it from reappearing, and London was hit particularly hard. Every two decades or so, a mini-plague popped back up in London, and officials were hard-pressed to figure out how to curtail it.
Even worse, it killed 20 percent of the city’s population every time it resurged. By the 1500s, the British government was exhausted, and imposed new countrywide laws, requiring infected homes to be marked with a haybale hung on a pole outside the front door.
They also required people with infected family to carry a white pole while they were out running errands, so everyone would know to stay clear. Believing cats and dogs were carrying the disease, the government killed thousands of them — still unaware that fleas were the culprit.
In 1665, the Great Plague of London struck, worse than any of the mini-outbreaks before. Fed up, the government banned all public events, forcibly shut people into their homes, and sealed the dead in mass graves with minimal undertaker contact. This hardline approach worked, and Y. pestis was no more.
That didn’t mean pandemics were cancelled as a brand, though. Smallpox had been going around in Europe and Asia for a while, but when it arrived in the New World — the Americas — in the 1400s, it wiped communities out.
Having never been previously exposed to the virus, the indigenous populations of the American continents had no immunity whatsoever to smallpox. In one century, 90 to 95 percent of America’s non-European-born residents were dead. Ten million people alone were lost in what’s now Mexico.
Though it took several centuries, science was able to catch up to smallpox. In 1796, Edward Jenner was the first person to successfully inoculate a healthy person against the disease by using the similar, but less deadly, cowpox to induce a minor infection.
Noticing that milkmaids who caught cowpox seemed immune to smallpox, Jenner swabbed fluid from a cowpox blister into a cut on a boy’s arm, and then exposed the boy to smallpox. When he didn’t get sick, Jenner’s method was duplicated across the globe, and gave rise to the modern vaccine. By 1980, smallpox was eradicated.
Possibly the wildest way to end an outbreak, though, was the way cholera finally subsided in England. During the mid-19th century, scientists still believed the sickness, which was killing thousands of British folks, was the result of a “miasma,” or “bad air.”
However, this bad air was simply impossible to avoid, since air can’t be seen. Not buying the official story, one guy named John Snow had an idea that went against the grain: he surmised the disease was being spread through some malady in London’s water systems.
Snow hunted for clues, comparing the hospital and morgue data from local outbreaks and looking for a link to where afflicted people got their drinking water. Finally, he found one. People who’d been using the Broad Street pump to get their well water had an unusually high rate of sickness, and 500 of those individuals had died.
Snow hounded officials about the pump, at last convincing them to remove the pump handle and eliminate public access to the well. Local infections dropped dramatically, and Snow’s discovery led to worldwide awareness of the importance of clean water.
Decades later, the Spanish Flu struck. On September 20th, 1918, 250 soldiers from Montana arrived in the city of Boulder, Colorado. Of the 250 men, 13 were on their deathbeds. They weren’t dying from battle wounds, however. They were shaking, sweating, and almost delirious with the flu.
Before long, the flu was zeroing in on Gunnison, Colorado, a farming and mining town with a population of 1,300. Gunnison was filled with tough, salt-of-the-earth people who took life day by day. Looking back, this clear-headed attitude may be what saved them.
But back in the fall of 1918, when those 13 soldiers fought for their lives in Boulder, the situation certainly made most Coloradans panic. After all, the pandemic had been something other countries were dealing with. Suddenly, it was knocking on their own doors.
“The flu is after us,” the Gunnison News-Champion warned on October 10th. “It is circulating in almost every village and community around us.” This wasn’t just fear mongering. Two railroads ran through Gunnison and connected it to Denver, which was a hot-spot of flu cases.
By October 16th, governor Julius Gunter had issued an executive order banning public and private gatherings. Of all the towns in Colorado, Gunnison’s reaction is what made them stand out. Unlike others, they refused to be inactive in the face of panic.
The News-Champion published one front-page article on influenza, including steps to take for avoidance and treatment, in every weekly edition. Since this was before the time of news alerts, the people of Gunnison clung to every word.
Back in 1918, people weren’t sanitizing their doorknobs with antibacterial wipes or soaking their hands in Purell. They weren’t able to horde face masks or toilet paper or frozen foods. Instead, they were forced to rely on something that seems completely foreign to us today.
They were forced to trust their leaders. They depended on local newspapers for updates, doctors for guidance, and the police for authority. Dr. F.P. Hanson, the county physician, took a leading role…and made an unprecedented decision.
“I have caused a strict quarantine to be placed in Gunnison county against the world,” he announced. “Barricades and fences have been erected on all main highways near the county lines.” For the first time ever, life in Gunnison ground to a complete halt.
Motorists were instructed to either drive straight through Gunnison or submit to days-long quarantine. The railroads, once the lifeblood of the county, were eventually shut down. “Any person may leave the county at his will; none may return,” Hanson warned.
Gunnison, once filled with bustling businesses and friendly neighbors, was silent and still. The people looked not to politicians for comfort, but to local doctors like Hanson and J.W. Rockerfeller, who were given “entire charge” of the county…and the physicians weren’t kidding around.
Anyone who violated the rules of quarantine would be “dealt with to the fullest extent of the law,” Hanson said. “And to this we promise our personal attention.” It wasn’t long before Hanson and Rockerfeller had to put their warning to action.
Residents reported two motorists and a rail passenger who were trying to avoid being quarantined. The result? Their immediate arrest. “This little instance should show outsiders what Gunnison county’s stand is,” Rockerfeller warned. As the flu spread elsewhere, Gunnison remained on lock-down.
At first, the success of the enforced quarantine was touch-and-go; each time it seemed safe to lift the bans, the state would be rocked by another wave of influenza. By 1919, Gunnison had been in quarantine for two full months, and its citizens were more than a little restless.
Still, the doctors held on to their insistence that quarantine was for the best. “It is not a pleasant or profitable undertaking, [but] when whole families have been wiped out…isn’t it worthwhile to maintain, although it entails inconvenience, hardships, and financial loss?” Rockerfeller wrote.
Another newspaper gave terrified citizens some — if not uplifting — tips. “You are a soldier in civil life. It is your patriotic duty to do your utmost to avoid unnecessarily exposing yourself or others to this disease…a little carelessness on your part may cost someone’s life.”
And so the quarantine in Gunnison continued…until early February, that is. At this point, flu cases had decreased in the state. People in Gunnison started peering out of their windows for signs of life. Was it safe to go out?
There was only one way to find out. Gunnison lifted its travel and quarantine restrictions, and people left their homes for the first time in months. But it was all for nothing: By mid-March, an unexpected wave of influenza hit Gunnison while its guard was down.
The newspaper was filled with headlines shouting about the “Grim Reaper,” and on March 13th, one headline read simply: “Flu Gets Us At Last.” One by one, previously healthy Gunnison citizens were bedridden. The carnage was projected to be great.
Although spring came to Gunnison, the carnage never did. Of all 1,300 residents, seven died: Two adults and five children. The rest of the flu cases were mild and left Gunnison with almost all of its families intact…and with an unlikely legacy.
Gunnison is now known as the town that narrowly avoided a pandemic. Looking back, their success comes down to three things: precautions when it seemed unnecessary, patience when it seemed impossible, and of course, plain old luck.