What Can We Learn from the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918?

In my recent post, Pandemics in History, I, naturally, included the 1918 Flu Pandemic (also called the “Spanish Flu”) on the list. I want to expand on that part of our history for one very obvious reason; there are many parallels between the flu pandemic and the nightmare we have been living for the last 17 months.

First, allow me to be very clear; Covid-19 and the flu ARE NOT the same thing. Yes, I made sure to underline, italicize, bold, and color the “are not” because this is a crucial point. The “flu,” as we know it today, is hardly comparable to covid, but you’ll find that there are a not-so-shocking number of commonalities in government and public response.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the 1918 Flu Pandemic. How did it start and finish? What parallels can you pinpoint between this pandemic and ours? Maybe it can give us a little hope about the future…

a brief summary of the 1918 flu pandemic

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas (1918). Original image from National Museum of Health and Medicine. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

As many as 50 million people died globally when influenza type A (subtype H1N1) hit western Europe in March 1918. It spread rapidly, and by August 1918, a second wave arrived. By then, it had mutated into a more contagious and deadly variant.

“For example, at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, U.S., six days after the first case of influenza was reported, there were 6,674 cases.”1

It reached every country in the world from the crowded train routes of Asia to the more secluded islands, like New Zealand and Samoa. India lost 12.5 million people in total; the United States lost 675,000. The majority of deaths occurred during the second and third waves of the pandemic, when the virus began to hit what was thought to be the most unlikely age groups the hardest.1

Healthy young adults were taken by the virus at unprecedented rates, and this was just one of many firsts in the flu pandemic. To date, historians and scientists continue to debate over the origins and consequences. As a result, there are many misconceptions and falsehoods surrounding the pandemic, including:

  • The flu originated in Spain. This is simply incorrect, and the name “Spanish flu” is largely misleading. The most likely explanation for this name is that it was a consequence of the First World War. The key countries involved in the conflict had every reason to downplay the effects of the pandemic in their countries. Spain, being neutral in the war, did not. As such, the pandemic appeared to be worse there; in reality, it was no worse than the majority of countries.
  • Treatments were just as lethal as the disease. Some argue that the death rate was exacerbated by the large doses of aspirin prescribed by doctors to treat the symptoms of the flu. It is certainly possible that aspirin poisoning was present (doctors were prescribing doses nearly eight times the safe daily amount); however, death rates in parts of the world without easy access to aspirin were just as high.
  • No one knows what made it so deadly. The virus was replicated in 2007 and studied in monkeys. They now know that the leading cause of death in healthy, young people was an overreaction of the immune system. They named it the “cytokine storm.”2

In all the precariousness, you may wonder how public officials handled this pandemic. Does it compare to how our leadership has handled covid?

Official response to the 1918 flu pandemic

“Public health officials, law enforcement officers and politicians had reasons to underplay the severity of the 1918 flu, which resulted in less coverage in the press.”2

The American Soldiers in Presence of Gas suring World War I (1918). Original image from National Museum of Health and Medicine. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

With the war in full swing, officials in the United States deemed it necessary to downplay the pandemic’s severity. They feared that acknowledging it globally would weaken their position in the war and embolden their enemies. They did, however, taken action.

Without proper treatment or vaccinations available, officials had to resort to preventative measures to stop the spread of the virus. Many of these will sound very familiar:

  • They pushed the use of disinfectants and regular sterilization.
  • Cities with larger outbreaks were placed under quarantine.
  • In some areas, public places were closed for extended periods of time.
  • They wrote legislation to stop the use of common cups and utensils in public places.
  • Masks were mandated nationally.
  • Schools shut down, but often opened too soon.
  • Committees were formed to canvas rural areas for unreported cases.
  • Health Departments released posters and imagery to educate the community on the importance of hand-washing and personal hygiene.

Hospitals also had to adjust their practices to accommodate the influx of patients and contain the spread within the facilities. In keeping with the preventative measures for any contagious, airborne disease, they tried to utilize well-ventilated spaces, like large rooms with high ceilings and even outdoor areas.

Of course, just as we are seeing right now with covid, they experienced massive overflow in hospitals. Historical photographs show nurses attending to patients in rows of beds inside gymnasiums and on balconies. They practiced continuous disinfection and sterilization and “utilized scientific ideas of germ theory to reduce transmission.”3

Walter Reed Hospital flu ward (ca. 1910–1920). Original from Library of Congress. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

how did it end?

In fact, there was no definitive end to the 1918 pandemic, which is a significant bummer. Given that I spent nearly all of 2020 pregnant and worried and now all of 2021 a new mother and worried, a part of me is holding out hope for some miraculous day when I will walk out of my house without an N-95 and a bottle of Purell and just feel safe. I won’t hold my breath.

In 1919, they thought the pandemic had ended. Cases dissipated in the summer season when people were spending more time outside, but they shot back up in the winter when everyone was indoors again. Once so much of the world population had been infected and so many lives had been lost, there simply weren’t enough susceptible people left to create another pandemic. Of course, that does not mean there weren’t epidemics.4

Today we have the vaccine, and we simply live with the flu. It is what it is. You go to the grocery store for a gallon of milk and stop by the pharmacy for a flu shot. Easy as pie. We have much bigger fish to fry these days.

what can we learn from the flu pandemic?

Women wearing surgical masks during the influenza epidemic, Brisbane (1919). Original image from State Library of Queensland. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

One key difference between the flu pandemic and the covid pandemic is the faith that the population had in science. In 1918, there was much more of it. When people were asked to put on masks, they did. When they were asked not to get too close to each other, they didn’t. When they were quarantined, they complied, and when kids didn’t go to school, parents understood.

The most important difference is the vaccine. It took several years to develop the flu vaccine, and even though we have it now, it did not play a role in the end of the pandemic. Now, more than 100 years later, medicine did what it always does; it improved. We can develop a vaccine more quickly because we have been developing vaccine technology for over a century. Vaccines eradicate infectious diseases. The proof is in our history.

Lastly, one key similarity is that people were shaken in the beginning and gradually started to break the rules. Without preventative measures and in the absence of a vaccine, of course the spread continued, and the flu came back in deadly waves because…surprise, surprise…”a pandemic isn’t over just because we’re over it.”

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Sources:

  1. Britannica. “Influenza pandemic of 1918-19.”
  2. Healthline. “1918 flu pandemic facts.”
  3. Stanford University. “The Public Health Response.”
  4. Time Magazine. “How Does a Pandemic End? Here’s What We Can Learn from the 1918 Flu.”

Pandemics in History

Did you know there have only been a few actual pandemics in history? Epidemics and endemics, yes, there have been plenty, but there is just a small number of recorded pandemics in human history, and it’s hard to believe sometimes that we are actually living through one right now. In modern history, this is the worst, but take a look at some pandemics of the past and how we got through them…

Here are some other pandemics in history…

The plague of justinian

(541-750 CE). Multiple bubonic plagues occurred throughout history, but scholars refer to the Plague of Justinian as the first pandemic. It’s origins have not been identified, but what we do know it is that it wiped out nearly half of the population during the rule of Roman Emperor Justinian from present day Turkey to what we now know as England. Today, we know that bubonic plague refers to a deadly bacterium called Yersinia pestis that travels through infected fleas and lice found on rats and humans alike. (If you’ve read “8 Nasty Historical Facts You Probably Didn’t Know,” you’re aware that people have historically struggled with proper hygiene.) First hand accounts of the disease describe fever, chills, and lymph nodes that are swollen and even oozing. It spread so rapidly that families were often unable to properly bury their loved ones. In Constantinople, the ruling government assisted in collecting bodies and burying them in mass graves outside city walls. Today, bacterial infections are relatively easily cured thanks to modern medicine and antibiotics. 1

the black death pandemic

1347-1352. The bubonic plague returned centuries later. It traveled from Asia Minor to the Crimean Peninsula via Tartar armies attacking a city called Kaffa on the shores of the Black Sea in present day Ukraine. The Tartars successfully sieged the city, and first hand accounts tell the tale of soldiers using a catapult to hurl the dead bodies of plague victims over the sides of the city walls. Traders fled the city during the siege and carried the plague with them to present day Turkey and across the Mediterranean to the shores of Sicily, which became ground zero of the mass spread across Europe. The Tartar soldiers made their way through eastern European countries and into India, leaving a trail of death along the way. Accounts of symptoms mimic those of the first bubonic plague. They spoke of “tumours in the groin or armpits,” which we now know to be swollen lymph nodes. Today we call this pandemic “The Black Death.” In the mid 14th century, they referred to it as “the pestilence.”2

the flu pandemic

1918-1919. Before COVID made its debut, the 1918 influenza outbreak was the worse pandemic in modern history. Five hundred million people were infected, 50 million of them died, nearly 700,000 of those were in the United States. Studies of the virus showed genes of avian origin, and with no vaccine or antibiotics to treat the bacterial infections common with the flu, the death toll was devastating. The only means of control available might sound familiar: “isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.”3 U.S. citizens were ordered to wear masks. Schools, churches, and other public places were shut down, but another wave of the pandemic hit when soldiers started to come home from war. Pressure to appear patriotic and censored media downplaying the severity of the disease led to many wrong turns. By the summer of 1919, the pandemic finally ended. The reason: so many were infected that nearly enough of the population either died or survived with immunity.4

the aids pandemic

1981-Present. It is very likely that HIV and AIDS debuted before the 1980s; however, with no obvious signs or symptoms, many may have died without ever knowing they were infected. Many believe it started in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the early 20th century and originated in chimpanzees, then transmitted to humans. By 1980, HIV, which can develop into AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), had reached Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Australia, reaching pandemic status. It was first recorded as severe cases of pneumonia and thought to predominantly affect the gay community until reports of transmission in heterosexual relations emerged in 1983.5 Initial infection of HIV can manifest as flu-like symptoms, but for the most part, it is asymptomatic until it develops into AIDS. AIDS symptoms include weight loss, fatigue, night sweats, and reoccurring infections. To date there is no known cure, but treatment has come a long way. Because HIV and AIDS are not airborne diseases, awareness and prevention techniques are the best strategies to protect yourself from contraction.

swine flu pandemic

2009. In 1976, a subtype of H1N1 known as the Swine Flu emerged in Fort Dix, NJ where one young man died and 13 were infected. The U.S. government, fearing a pandemic, hurried to create a mass immunization program. Just a under a decade before, a new strand of the flu had caused the death of over one million people globally. The immunization program was rushed and the swine flu pandemic of 1976 never happened, but a similar virus did make a global impact some 33 years later. The first occurrence of swine flu was in America during April 2009. It was not the same combination of flu viruses detected in Fort Dix in 1976, and it spread very quickly on a global scale. By June, it was declared a pandemic, and one year later, it resulted in “60.8 million illnesses, 273,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths in the U.S.” Vaccinations were made available in October 2009, and the World Health Organization declared an end to the spread in August 2010. Global estimates are scattered, but anywhere from 150,000 to 575,000 people died during the swine flu pandemic.6

Stay safe out there everyone. It’s not over, and we’re relying solely on the compassion and empathy of others at this point.

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Sources:

  1. Kristina Sessa, The Ohio State University, Origins. “The Justinianic Plague.”
  2. John Frith, JMVH. “The History of Plague – Part 1. The Three Great Pandemics.”
  3. CDC. “History of 1918 Flu Pandemic.”
  4. History.com. “Spanish Flu.”
  5. Avert. “History of HIV and AIDS Overview.”
  6. Becker’s Hospital Review. “A look back at swine flu: 8 facts about the world’s last pandemic in 2009.”

Visit Morocco: Mausoleum of Mohammed V

Two kings and a prince were laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, and although Rabat, Morocco’s capitol city, has so much to offer, this remains one of my favorite places to visit. Just knowing what this dynasty means to Morocco creates a unique atmosphere; you can feel the presence of royalty and historical significance when you step inside.

It took nine years and over 400 men to complete this extravagant monument in honor of one of Morocco’s most important leaders. Every inch of the structure, from the perimeter gate to the brass installations, is carved with intricate precision. It is a true testament to Morocco’s distinguished style.

On either side of the entry are signature Moroccan fountains. Vibrantly colored mosaics behind porcelain pools of water display the attention to detail that Moroccan architecture does so well.

When King Hassan II commissioned the mausoleum’s construction for his father, Mohammed V, in 1962, he positioned it inside Yacoub Al Mansour Square, where Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur’s unfinished mosque and minaret (later named Hassan Tower) sat, incomplete, for nearly 800 years.

hassan Tower and the unfinished masjid

Construction on Hassan Tower began in 1191 and halted abruptly in 1199 when al-Mansur died. At only 144 feet, the tower never reached al-Mansur’s goal, but it remains an important monument in Moroccan history.

Minaret’s serve a purpose. They are connected to mosques and used for the adhan (call for prayer). Like the tower, the mosque was never completed. Today, 348 columns still stand where the mosque would have been, directly across from the mausoleum.

If you are familiar with the minaret of Kaoutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh (photos here in Visit Morocco: Marrakesh), you’ll recognize the design of Hassan Tower. Although, it never came to fruition, it would have been significantly taller and wider than the minaret of Kaoutoubia.

The tomb of kings

Sultan Mohammed V was king of Morocco from 1927 to 1953 and again from 1957 to 1961. He played a vital role in gaining Morocco’s independence in 1956, removing them from French colonial rule.

The French appointed Mohammed in 1927, assuming he would be a compliant puppet leader. He proved to be difficult when he actively pushed Moroccan nationalist sentiments and policy during his leadership; they exiled him in 1953. He returned in 1957 to rule over a free, autonomous Morocco.

When Mohammed’s son, Hassan II, began construction on his father’s mausoleum, he wanted to create an elaborate space that allowed for Moroccan’s to visit his tomb; it was always meant to be more than a grave.

The tomb itself is square. Beautiful Moroccan doors and arches allow entrance from every side, and young men dressed in uniforms reminicient of The Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace stand alert at every entrance.

You enter onto a 360° balcony overlooking the tombs of Mohammed V, his son King Hassan II, and Prince Abdullah, Hassan’s son. Mohammed is placed in the middle, directly under the stunning, domed ceiling. Their coffins are surprisingly understated.

A masjid for kings

Beside the King’s final resting place is a mosque. Just days before our visit, we saw news footage of the current king praying inside with his court. Rabat is the home of kings, and Morocco’s current king proudly displays a chart tracing his lineage from the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), Islam’s beloved prophet, in the square.

Entrance to the mosque next to the mausoleum (feat. my husband)

I never stepped foot inside the mosque. I watched as tourists and Moroccans alike lined up to take photos in front of the giant brass doors with traditional arches and carvings to match the mausoleums. If there is one thing I learned for sure, it’s that Moroccans know how to lay the dead to rest in style.

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The Mausoleum of Mohammed V: Where Morocco’s Famous King Lies

Two kings and a prince were laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, and although Rabat, Morocco’s capitol city, has so much to offer, this remains one of my favorite places to visit. Just knowing what this dynasty means to Morocco creates a unique atmosphere; you can feel the presence of royalty and historical significance when you step inside.

It took nine years and over 400 men to complete this extravagant monument in honor of one of Morocco’s most important leaders. Every inch of the structure, from the perimeter gate to the brass installations, is carved with intricate precision. It is a true testament to Morocco’s distinguished style.

On either side of the entry are signature Moroccan fountains. Vibrantly colored mosaics behind porcelain pools of water display the attention to detail that Moroccan architecture does so well.

When King Hassan II commissioned the mausoleum’s construction for his father, Mohammed V, in 1962, he positioned it inside Yacoub Al Mansour Square, where Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur’s unfinished mosque and minaret (later named Hassan Tower) sat, incomplete, for nearly 800 years.

hassan Tower and the unfinished masjid

Construction on Hassan Tower began in 1191 and halted abruptly in 1199 when al-Mansur died. At only 144 feet, the tower never reached al-Mansur’s goal, but it remains an important monument in Moroccan history.

Minaret’s serve a purpose. They are connected to mosques and used for the adhan (call for prayer). Like the tower, the mosque was never completed. Today, 348 columns still stand where the mosque would have been, directly across from the mausoleum.

If you are familiar with the minaret of Kaoutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh (photos here in Visit Morocco: Marrakesh), you’ll recognize the design of Hassan Tower. Although, it never came to fruition, it would have been significantly taller and wider than the minaret of Kaoutoubia.

The tomb of kings

Sultan Mohammed V was king of Morocco from 1927 to 1953 and again from 1957 to 1961. He played a vital role in gaining Morocco’s independence in 1956, removing them from French colonial rule.

The French appointed Mohammed in 1927, assuming he would be a compliant puppet leader. He proved to be difficult when he actively pushed Moroccan nationalist sentiments and policy during his leadership; they exiled him in 1953. He returned in 1957 to rule over a free, autonomous Morocco.

When Mohammed’s son, Hassan II, began construction on his father’s mausoleum, he wanted to create an elaborate space that allowed for Moroccan’s to visit his tomb; it was always meant to be more than a grave.

The tomb itself is square. Beautiful Moroccan doors and arches allow entrance from every side, and young men dressed in uniforms reminicient of The Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace stand alert at every entrance.

You enter onto a 360° balcony overlooking the tombs of Mohammed V, his son King Hassan II, and Prince Abdullah, Hassan’s son. Mohammed is placed in the middle, directly under the stunning, domed ceiling. Their coffins are surprisingly understated.

A masjid for kings

Beside the King’s final resting place is a mosque. Just days before our visit, we saw news footage of the current king praying inside with his court. Rabat is the home of kings, and Morocco’s current king proudly displays a chart tracing his lineage from the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), Islam’s beloved prophet, in the square.

Entrance to the mosque next to the mausoleum (feat. my husband)

I never stepped foot inside the mosque. I watched as tourists and Moroccans alike lined up to take photos in front of the giant brass doors with traditional arches and carvings to match the mausoleums. If there is one thing I learned for sure, it’s that Moroccans know how to lay the dead to rest in style.

You can see more people places in Morocco is you check out my “Visit Morocco” blog.

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7 Bizarre Things Aristocrats Did, And Got Away With

When boundless wealth and power meets little to no consequence for actions, you can imagine the sort of bizarre behavior that might emerge. That’s why it’s not entirely surprising that nearly every royal dynasty has a history of odd behavior. Here are just a few examples of aristocrats participating in behavior that they average person could never do, at least not without consequence.

King louis xIV’s fetish

If you’ve ever wondered why women give birth lying down, look no further than King Louis XIV. Before Louis, it was common practice for women to give birth standing, squatting, or kneeling. Gravity would naturally assist in these positions, and squatting actually opens the pelvis, allowing more room for the baby to exit. King Louis forced his wives to give birth lying down. Why? Because he liked to watch. He had a birthing fetish that ultimately led to a common practice in obstetrics. Today, although it is still standard to lie down in the hospital, we have the right to chose how we give birth, who is there, and who assists. You can opt to exclude the perverse gaze of creepy aristocrats.2

The end of the habsburgs

King Charles II of Spain was the final member of the Habsburg dynasty. He was said to be so ugly that his wife couldn’t bare to look at him. Most royal families have a history of inbreeding, but the Habsburgs took it to unprecedented levels. Uncles married nieces, and close cousins married each other. No one married outside the family. By the time Charles was born, his genetic makeup resembled that of a child born from brother and sister. One fourth of his genes were identical. His underbite was so severe that his teeth never touched, causing issues with eating and speech. His official portraits portray the Habsburg jaw, but painters were instructed to make him look healthier and younger. He was constantly plagued with illnesses and had a very frail form. Neither he nor his sister were ever able to produce an heir, for obvious reasons, and the Habsburg Dynasty died with him in 1700.4

The mad marquis

You’ve likely heard the phrase, “paint the town red,” but you may not know where it originated. Between 1837-1838, Londoners suffered a series of attacks by what they described as a fire-breathing boogeyman. While some blamed it on ghosts and other paranormal phenomena, others took a more rational approach and placed the blame on young aristocrats known for their wild behavior. Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquis of Waterford, was known to be an unruly partier, the modern equivalent of the obnoxious frat boy. One night, he and his friends (all drunk) harassed the people and police of a small town just for fun. Before leaving, they stole red paint and literally painted the town red. It is said that the boogeyman attacks stopped around the same time Beresford married and left London a changed man. Whether or not it was him remains unknown.6

Sources:

  1. Biography.com. “Elizabeth Bathory”
  2. IFL Science. “There’s a Really Creepy Reason Why Women Mainly Give Birth Lying Down.”
  3. Zippy Facts. “Why Did Francis Henry Egerton Throw Dinner Parties for His Dogs?”
  4. History Collection. “40 Odd Facts About the Inbred King Charles II of Spain.”
  5. The Vintage News. “The Eccentric Duke Who Adored Misanthropy, Built 15 Miles of Tunnels.”
  6. History Collection. “The Leaping Boogeyman Who Terrorized Victorian England.”
  7. Cornwall Live. “Eccentric Mermaid Priest Who Wrote Cornwall Anthem Trelawny and Hanged a Mouse.”

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8 Nasty Historical Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

The study of history is often limited to the writings and actions of larger-than-life men. What we often forget is that there were centuries of societies before us that lived everyday lives, just as we do, and did weird, gross things, just as others in the centuries after us will say we did. You’ll find that a lot of the gross things in social history revolve around hygiene. Before the advent of flushable toilets, laundry machines, and a basic understanding of the importance of clean water, a lot of nasty things happened. Here are just a few…

#1 The Great Stink

Victorian London, 1858. From the beginning, London used the Thames as a dump for all waste, including human waste. As the population grew, so did the waste. Most homes did not have flush toilets, and even the ones that did simply sent the waste into the same waterways that led to the Thames. As you might imagine, disease spread rapidly. Waterborne diseases like Cholera plagued the city for years, and then, in 1858 during a particularly hot summer, the problem became airborne. As the heat began to rise, the waste in the river fermented, creating an overwhelming smell. All attempts to cover it failed, and officials began to worry about the health of the city’s population. A plan to build a new sewage system that would divert contaminated water from the river resulted in more disease. Many streets and wharfs were cut off during construction, and affected citizens lost access to their neighborhood water supply. With pails in hands, they walked to the closest water source, the waste water of the Thames. Cholrea spread quickly. Ultimately, the new sewage problem was solved and waste was successfully diverted from the river, but “The Great Stink” of 1858 will forever be known as the catalyst for London’s modern sewage system.

#2 Before the Laundromat

We take for granted how easy it is for us to wash our clothes. Today we have machines that do all the hard work for us; we simply have to wait. The ole fashioned washboard, which was used to scrub clothes clean by hand in a bucket of soap and water, wasn’t invented until the Industrial Revolution. So, what did people do before when they needed to wash their clothes? The answer is diverse, but I found a few commonalities. Some people just simply didn’t. It wasn’t a priority. To my surprise there was one solution used across centuries in different parts of the world, from the Roman Empire to the United States during the homesteading years. That solution was urine. They washed their clothing in human urine. Why? Urine has ammonia, which has bleaching properties. Would we call that clean today? Definitely, not, but they didn’t have the power of Tide, and to be honest, proper hygiene has undergone a slow evolution.

#3 Henry VIIi’s ulcers

Henry the Eighth is best known in the context of Anne Boleyn, the wife he beaded, but he also suffered from several health issues, many were likely caused by diabetes and poor hygiene. The varicose ulcers on his legs caused him a great deal of pain and worsened over the years. Today, we know the cause of this condition is a lack of proper circulation resulting in pooled blood in the veins; it can be treated with compression and elevation. However, Henry’s ulcers were left open to drain, and without proper wound care, infection settled in them. The result was a horrendous smell. After a jousting accident, Henry’s condition slowly worsened until he could barely walk. No longer able to participate in the sport and exercise he loved, he spent his time eating a high-caloric diet of wine, bread and meat, causing more strain on his heart and worsening the ulcers. Once a strong athlete with a robust personality, his legacy became that of an obese king with a nasty attitude.

#4 the stench of versailles

Today, Versailles is standing proof of French architectural achievement. In the 18th Century, we may have marveled at its beauty but scoffed at its smell. King Louis XIV boosted that he had only bathed twice in his lifetime, and there was a common belief at that time that bathing caused disease. Despite the availability of baths, his courtiers followed his lead and rarely bathed. Hygiene in the palace was abysmal at best. The famous white wigs we associate with French aristocratic fashion served a greater purpose. Lice thrived in the court, and syphilis, a side effect of which is hair loss, spread rapidly and affected many. While they kept their clothes as clean as possible, the palace was filthy. Courtiers regularly used chamber pots to do their business and often emptied them directly out the window. During lavish parties, when everyone was heavily intoxicated, they would abandon all civility and use any available corner to do their business. Yes, those beautiful halls of ornate design and remarkable chandeliers were once covered in feces and urine.

#5 Roman mouthwash

In a time before fluoride and toothpaste, the Roman’s reverted to some interesting dental hygiene practices. Believe it or not, mouthwash was actually invented centuries ago and well-documented for the first time in Rome. They weren’t using Listerine, so what was this so-called mouthwash? Urine. Yes, they believed that the ammonia found in pee could whiten their teeth and kill germs. Even weirder…the stronger the urine, the better it was. For whatever reason, they designated Portuguese urine as the best quality mouthwash, making it so popular that Nero placed a high tax on it. They didn’t stop there. They clearly found beauty in a nice white smile and went to great lengths to try and accomplish it. Powdered mouse brains became a popular whitening toothpaste, whether it worked is unknown. Hopefully, it remains so.

#6 No swimming in the moat

Depending on the time period, we often think of castles as a home for royalty or, in modern times, a relic of the past. We romanticize them and their beautiful architectural features, often with little understanding of their purpose. Medieval castles were rarely permanent residences, and they were used effectively as a line of defense. The towers (or turrets as they are sometimes called) functioned as a place for archers to keep a watchful eye, and the moat made it difficult for enemies to attack the castle. What we rarely read about in history books is the condition of the moat. There were not flushing toilets in the Middle Ages, and chamber pots were typically emptied by simply dumping them in the moat. Another thing castles didn’t have…window panes. After a few weeks and a substantial build up in the moat, the smell would seep into the castle. This is why they were rarely used a permanent residence.

#7 roman bathroom of nightmares

The Romans made porta potties look like the bathroom at the Four Seasons. Privacy was not a concern when designing a place to get rid of your waste. Imagine this…you’re stepping into a traditional restroom during the height of the Roman Empire. You sit down on a long marble slab with several strategically placed holes, wave at your friends sharing the experience next to you, and do your business. When you finish, you grab the sponge on a stick laying beside you, dip it in the water running below your feet, wash yourself, and dip in back in the water for a quick clean before leaving it for the next guest. That was a normal restroom experience in ancient Rome.

#8 King Louis’s Fistula

King Louis XIV of France is famous for many reasons and infamous for many more, but you may not have heard of his contribution to surgical medicine. In 1686, King Louis developed a perianal abscess that wouldn’t heal after physicians tried, to no avail, to treat it with some questionable tactics. Among the treatments were burning with a hot iron, which caused it to crater, and covering it with rags soaked in the extract of leaves and flowers. All it did was fester, and Louis found himself changing his clothes several times during the day when the pus would stain them. Eventually, the abscess became an anal fistula that caused him a great deal of pain. When Louis had enough, he resolved to allowing surgeons to take their shot at fixing it. While lying on his stomach, with his legs held down, Louis underwent three hours of surgery with absolutely no anesthesia. Surprisingly, it worked. Louis was so pleased that he lifted the rank of surgeons, who were previously below physicians in the medical hierarchy, and granted them titles and great wealth. One surgeon created a tool just for the surgery; today, it sits in a medical history museum in Paris.

Sources:

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