The Historical Petri Dish: How Disease Helped Shape America

Disease has always been a major part of human history. We’ve lived with it and died from it ever since we started to exist. So, it is only natural that it has huge impacts on our way of life. In fact, if it weren’t for disease, we would not be living here the way we do now. Whenever we talk about diseases affecting the development of America, we always think about Columbus sailing to America in 1492. We all know that when he came here, he brought a host of diseases with him, and we all know that these diseases, along with his enslaving and murdering, pretty much wiped out the native population of the island where he landed. But this did not have as big an impact on American history as much as people would like to think. There were other ways disease affected America.

It was a similar, but much more impactful event that was the beginning of the end for the natives in our own homeland (i.e. American mainland) – the British landing at Jamestown in 1607. After the colonists got a good foothold in the land, they started to massacre the natives, and continued to do so for centuries. But they were not without assistance – smallpox did most of the work for them, killing about 80 percent of the natives within the first one and a half centuries. In fact, perhaps inspired by Columbus’ genocidal ways, the British famously distributed “smallpox blankets” to the natives: as a British official wrote in his diary, “…we gave [the natives] two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” And what an effect it had! Within months, an estimated 100,000 people in the Ohio River Valley were dead of smallpox. Due to the success of this strategy, the Americans continued the practice into the 19th century. This effortless extermination of the native people brought about easy victories against their remnants, and let us expand into what we now know as the United States. (This is not to say that I support genocide.)

Of course, you may say, it is common knowledge that disease ravaged the Native Americans. But there is one little-known tidbit that may have affected the outcome of the American Revolution. King George had the inherited disorder porphyria (possibly because of incest; you never know with these royal families), a disorder that can cause “personality changes” and “mental disorders”. King George periodically went through bouts of insanity, especially near the end of his life, when he was kept in an institution for nine years. His first attack was in 1765, and he had them ever since. Parliament even considered declaring the king unfit to rule; this motion was shot down after the king temporarily recovered. Had the king not had this mental disorder and made clear-headed choices, the American Revolution might not have happened.

File:FlorentineCodex BK12 F54 smallpox.jpg

http://www.mit.edu/~thistle/v9/9.11/1columbus.html

http://people.virginia.edu/~jlc5f/charlotte/porphyria.html

http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/porphyria.html

the book

Image Credit (no information obtained from here): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FlorentineCodex_BK12_F54_smallpox.jpg

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2 thoughts on “The Historical Petri Dish: How Disease Helped Shape America

  1. It is new that you introduced disease not as a detrimental epidemic but was helpful, at least to the British. Also, I would have never known that King George had a mental illness. That is interesting how you think the American Revolution could have been completely avoided if his thinking patterns were clear because he probably could only make executive decisions when his mind wasn’t being disrupted. His decisions seemed uniform under the same ideology.

  2. I think it is very interesting how you related the little-known fact about King George’s disorder to America’s existence as a country. It is very fascinating to see the effects of disease in different situations; while the Black Death in Europe led to the breaking down of the feudal social structure and ushered in the Renaissance, the smallpox epidemic in America helped the British easily subdue the natives who lived there before the arrival of the British, and allowed the colonists to eventually form their own nation.

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