History of Disease
The Not So Good Ol’ Days
One reason people so readily believe in the notion that a few vaccines were able to save us from dozens of communicable diseases, is the lack of perspective we have about the day to day lives of our ancestors. Basics that we now take for granted such as water treatment, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, sanitation, and hygiene are relatively new inventions, most of which were not in widespread use until well into the 20th century. It was the lack of these basics, combined with rampant malnutrition, wretched living conditions, child and sweatshop labour, that allowed diseases to both spread rapidly and kill many people.
“As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer the sun shone upon a narrow slip of water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow — indeed it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink. As we gazed in horror at it, we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it; we saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road, common to men and women, built over it; we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it…”
– Henry Mayhew (1812-1887), September 24, 1849
As the industrial revolution went into full swing rural peasants and farmers flocked to cities. In 1750 England, 15% of the population lived in towns but by 1880 a staggering 80% had become urban, with two-thirds working in manufacturing and related occupations. Infrastructure and housing were not able to keep up with the influx of humans resulting in severe overcrowding and the remarkable build-up of human and animal waste.
Roy Porter, a British Historian noted for his work on the history of medicine, wrote about the plight of millions of people in the newly industrialized cities:
“For millions, entire lives-albeit often very short ones-were passed in new industrial cities of the dreadful night with an all too typical socio-pathology: foul housing, often in flooded cellars, gross overcrowding, atmospheric and water-supply pollution, overflowing cesspools, contaminated pumps, poverty, hunger, fatigue, and abjection everywhere. Such conditions, comparable to today’s Third World shantytown or refugee camps, bred rampant sickness of every kind. Appalling neo-natal, infant and child mortality accompanied the abomination of child labour mines and factories; life expectations were exceedingly low-often under twenty years among the working classes- and everywhere sickness precipitated family breakdown, pauperization, and social crisis.“
With no environmental laws, industries discharged their waste into the air and water. In London, during the 1850s, the environment was filled with dirt that spewed from factories. In addition to human and animal waste mounting in the city streets, there were also putrefying corpses and animals.
“In manufacturing towns, factory chimneys spewed soot, and everything was covered with dirt and grime. Smoke was a major ingredient of the famous London fog, which not only reduced visibility but posed serious health risks. Refuse, including rotting corpses of dogs and horses, littered city streets. In 1858, the stench from sewage and other rot in London was so putrid that the British House of Commons was forced to suspend its sessions.”
In addition to contaminated water supplies, polluted air, open sewage, and rotting corpses, our ancestors also dealt with diseased foods. A lack of enforced laws, as well as a systemically corrupt food supply, created the conditions for millions of people to be poisoned through rotten or contaminated foodstuffs.
“The dead-meat markets are contaminated by the carcasses of diseased animals from all sources… in the City markets alone his inspectors seize from one to two tons of diseased meat every week; and similar seizures, but to a less extent, are made in butchers’ shops and slaughter-houses outside the City by Medical Officers of Health and their assistants. In Edinburgh [England], Mr. Gamgee tells us that 100 to 200 diseased cattle are sold in the dead meat market every week, carcasses being smuggled in by night even from adjoining piggeries. In this way the best butchers, in ignorance “may and so serve diseased meat to the wealthiest in the land.”… Pigs are largely fed upon diseased meat which is too far gone even for the sausage-maker, and this is saying a great deal; and as a universal rule, disease pigs are pickled and cured for bacon, ham, etc.”
Deep-Dive - Living Conditions of the 18th-20th Century
Portions of this page and certain quotations are derived from Dissolving Illusions.
Another reason why childhood diseases used to be so lethal for children and are not today was the widespread use of hard child labour throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and stretching into the early 20th century. Children, already suffering from malnutrition, pollution, diseased foods, and a complete lack of sanitation and hygiene, were subjected in many cases to 12 hour days of hard labour where they were further abused and neglected, in coal mines, glassworks, cotton spinners, and other industries.
The 1816 report of the Select Committee on the state of children employed in manufacturing detailed what these child workers endured:
“Children of all ages, down to three and four, were found in the hardest and most painful labor, while babes of six were commonly found in large numbers in many factories. Labor from twelve to thirteen and often sixteen hours a day was the rule. Children had not a moment free, save to snatch a hasty meal, or sleep as best they could. From earliest youth they worked to a point of extreme exhaustion, without open-air exercise, or any enjoyment whatever, but grew up, if they survived at all, weak, bloodless, miserable, and in many cases deformed cripples, and victims of almost every disease.”
By the early 1900s children were still employed in the mining industry. Although the official age had been set at 14, children as young as 9 would still be found employed. With improved machinery, young boys were set to work as coal breakers picking slate from the coal as it was dumped into mine cars. In the breakers, the dust was so dense that light would not penetrate it, so boys needed to wear mine lamps on their hats to be able to see their feet.
“It is true we occasionally hear of a little boy run over by a coal car, or kicked to death by a mule, or fatally injured by falling slate. And in the coal breakers little boys are sometimes ground in large crushers that break the coal, caught in the wheels or other machinery, or buried in a stream of coal.”
In other industries the dangers came less from machinery and conditions, but rather from long hours, filthy working conditions, and exposure to harsh chemicals and toxic metals like lead.
“… women and children in lacemaking were often kept at work during the busy season till nine, ten, and even twelve o’clock at night; that the girls in dye-houses who carried wet goods on their backs into drying rooms at as a high a temperature as 110, and then out on to the grass fields, were often summoned to work at four or five o’clock in the morning; that there were more than 2,000 children under ten years of age at work in the Birmingham hardware industry, one-fourth of them under eight; and that weak-sight, blindness, and lead poisoning were prevalent in the potteries and other industries, which were carried on under shockingly unsanitary conditions.”
The immense physical strain, squalor, and poverty that children endured, combined with their lack of nutrition, created the ideal situations for the epidemic of relatively harmless diseases to kill many. These conditions which still exist in the Third World today, still produce endemic diseases with children hit especially hard.
Infectious Disease – a Brief History
The 19th century was characterized by one epidemic of disease after another. Impoverished people packed and stacked into booming cities without even the most basic infrastructure allowed diseases to tear through the population centers. Poor sanitation, hygiene, nutrition, and living conditions made even simple diseases like dysentery lethal.
“The depressing influences of extreme poverty, filth in all its forms and the overcrowding of large cities, are great promoters of contagion, resulting in epidemics, plagues, and pestilences; while strict cleanliness, fresh air, pure water, and hygienic living; tend greatly to restrict its spread and prevent these results…”
– Dr. French, Popular Science, 1888
Typhoid fever, a disease of poor sanitation, killed roughly 50,000 people per year in the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s. During the Spanish-American war, typhoid was epidemic in the national encampments accounting for 86.8 percent of the total deaths from disease during the war. During the civil war, typhoid fever had a mortality rate of 36.9% amongst soldiers.
Despite no mass vaccination campaign, typhoid fever has essentially been eliminated in the First World.
A bacterial infection of the small intestine is another disease of poor sanitation which causes cramps, diarrhea, dehydration and vomiting leading to death. Six major cholera epidemics swept Earth between 1816 and 1926. Between 1883-1887 alone, the epidemic claimed 250,000 lives in Europe and at least 50,000 in America. Major Russian cities reported more than 500,000 cholera deaths during the first quarter of the 20th century.
“…drinking water presented a growing problem. The spill-off from the slaughterhouses and the glue factories, the chemicals of the commercial manufacturers, and all of Chicago’s raw sewage had begun to contaminate the drinking water. Chicagoans had endured the cholera epidemic of 1848, an epidemic caused by polluted water; nearby Lake Michigan was far more contaminated in the 1850s.“
Despite no mass vaccination campaign, cholera has essentially been eliminated in the First World.
Inflammation of the bowels caused by bacteria or an ameba. It causes severe diarrhea with blood and mucus in the stool. Like Cholera, it is a disease of poor sanitation spread by fecal contamination of food and water.
“The Union Army in the Civil War (1861-1865) lost 186,216 men to disease, twice the number killed in action; nearly half were claimed by typhoid and dysentery.”
Despite no mass vaccination campaign, dysentery has essentially been eliminated in the First World.
Different than typhoid fever, typhus is an infection most commonly spread by lice. It occurs where there are poor hygiene and sanitation. Between 1917 and 1921 in Russia, there were 25 million cases resulting in 3 million deaths.
“…That the League [of Red Cross Societies], at the beginning of its organization was confronted with one of the most serious scourages since the Middle Ages – the typhus epidemic in Eastern Europe… There were more than 120,000 cases in Poland alone in July, and conditions are growing worse. Typhus goes with dirt, and our chief difficulty is in keeping the people clean.”
- Sir David Henderson, Director General of the League of Red Cross Societies
Despite no mass vaccination campaign, typhus fever has essentially been eliminated in the first world.
It is a particular type of upper-respiratory illness. Clinical diphtheria is caused when viruses infect diphtheriae bacteria leading to symptoms such as parchment-like secretion covers the back of the throat obstructing breathing and swallowing, and in severe cases can cause paralysis and congestive heart failure.
“Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland said yesterday that an epidemic stage is being approached. Since the beginning of the year there have been 2,773 cases of the diseases and 274 deaths… ‘A death from Diptheria should be condemned just as severely as death from typhoid fever. Both are entirely unnecessary and represent what is an effect a sanitary crime.”
The chart shows U.K. data 1838 to 1976
After a peak of roughly 50 deaths per 100,000 in the mid-1800s, the death rate had dropped to roughly 15 per 100,000 by the 1920s when the Diptheria vaccine went into use, following the same trajectory of all other infectious diseases.
Pertussis (Whooping Cough)
Pertussis is a toxin-mediated bacterial disease that can cause uncontrollable coughing which is exasperated by malnutrition. Often characterized by dry cough followed by a whoop-sounding cough which gives it its name.
“Significant figures concerning children’s diseases were given by Dr. Royal S. Haynes… ‘Whooping cough, kills more babies under one year of age than any other contagious disease. There are almost as many deaths from whooping cough as from typhoid.’ He gave startling statistics showing the ‘harmless’ disease. The deaths in New York in 1910 from measles were 785; scarlet fever, 953; whooping cough, 461; diptheria, 1,715; and smallpox only 5… in the same year dreaded typhoid caused only 558 deaths.”
The chart shows U.S. data 1920 – 1953
Pertussis experienced a 91% collapse in lethality between the early 1920’s and the time of widespread vaccination in the late 1940s, following the same trajectory of all other infectious diseases.
It is another toxin-mediated bacterial disease that produces a red rash on the skin, mostly on the chest and abdomen and it can spread to the entire body. In some people, serious complications such as heart and kidney disease can arise. These complications result from an autoimmune reaction produced in response to the infection.
“During the fifteen years 1847-1861 inclusive, the deaths from scarlatina and Diptheria in England and Wales amounted to 262,429 and in London alone to 38,890. In other words, one out of every twenty-three deaths occurring in London was due to scarlatina…”
Despite no mass vaccination campaign, scarlet fever has essentially been eliminated from the First World. This is often attributed to the invention and widespread use of antibiotics, but the decline between 1850 and the introduction of penicillin in 1944 was already more than 90%.
Unlike previously covered diseases, measles is a viral infection. Symptoms include runny nose, cough, high fever, aches, and small red, irregularly shaped spots on the skin. Like other diseases, measles epidemics resulted in many deaths in centuries past.
“The startling mortality among children from the little-regarded ailment of measles was indicated today by a statement issued by the State Department of Health, showing that in 1906 there were 1,463 deaths from it, 1,240 being of children under 5 years of age. In December alone, 2,807 cases of the disease were reported, and a search of the records shows that it kills 2.5 times more children than does scarlet fever.”
While health officials trying to encourage high vaccination rates will often claim measles is a deadly disease that kills thousands of children, they fail to mention that this is in the Third World where malnourished children lack basic sanitation and hygiene. Despite many thousands of cases, there has been just one measles death in the United States in the 21st Century. For perspective, bees kill an average of 62 Americans per year.
The chart shows U.S. Data, percentage decline of measles lethality 1912-1976
Prior to the introduction of mass vaccination for measles in 1963, the lethality of measles had declined by 98.6%. In the U.K. which suffered from much higher lethality at the turn of the 20th century, lethality had declined by a staggering 99.96% by the introduction of mass vaccination in 1968. These declines followed the trajectory of all other infectious diseases.
Yellow fever is an acute viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes. Epidemics during the 1800s swept through the northeastern United States killing thousands and leaving cities with the highest mortality rates nearly deserted.
“A few weeks have sufficed to turn a population of a[t] least Twenty Thousand, lately residing in Norfolk and its suburbs, scarcely Three Thousand remains… A common spectacle in the streets is a cart laden with coffins, which are deposited at some convenient street-corner, and removed hence by the undertakers as occasion demands… The rich, the poor – old and young, white and colored, all have been indiscriminately levelled by the disease which now holds fearful sway in our once happy city, throughout whose streets, avenues, and squares there reign a silence and a desolation that are sickening and oppressive beyond description.”
Despite no mass vaccination campaigns in the West, Yellow fever is extremely rare in the First World.
Deep-Dive - History of Disease
Portions of this page and certain quotations are derived from Dissolving Illusions.
Defeating Infectious Disease
With the spread and lethality of all infectious diseases following the same crashing trajectory from 1850 to 1950 whether we vaccinated or not, the question becomes what caused this precipitous drop. By the early 1800s many eminent scientists and health officials had already begun to realize that the epidemics of disease were resulting from the lack of sanitation and hygiene. The health revolution that resulted from these ideas would go on to save humanity from the up until then, never-ending scourge of infectious diseases.
“It is not strange that health improves when the population gives up
using diluted sewage as the principle beverage.”
– Dr. Thurman Rice, 1932
“The 19th-century shift in population from country to city that accompanied industrialization and immigration led to overcrowding in poor housing served by inadequate or nonexistent public water supplies and waste-disposal systems. These conditions resulted in repeated outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, TB, typhoid fever, influenza, yellow fever, and malaria.
By 1900, however, the incidence of many of these diseases had begun to decline because of public health improvements, implementation of which continued into the 20th century. Local, state, and federal efforts to improve sanitation and hygiene reinforced the concept of collective “public health” action (e.g., to prevent infection by providing clean drinking water).” – Centers for Disease Control
In 1854 English physician John Snow determined the source of the cholera epidemic in London to be a contaminated water supply pump. Snow realized that all the people suffering from cholera had drawn water from that pump. When the city shut down the pump, the epidemic subsided and Snow had demonstrated that the source of the disease was in the water.
“[Throughout] history, we find that the great loss of life has been through epidemics. Deaths from wounds, accidents, etc. have been insignificant when compared with the enormous loss of life which have occurred through epidemics. I recently had occasion to call attention to the epidemic of cholera at Hamburg. There were about 18,000 cases, of which more than half died. At Altoona, which derived its water supply form the same source, the Elbe, but filtered it before use, there were comparatively few cases.”
– Dr. T. W. Huntington, 1898
Throughout the 19th century large cities like London began ambitious sanitation projects ranging from sewage drainage to engineered water filtration systems. By the early 1900s water sanitation was improved further through the use of widespread chlorination which helped eliminate many waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery.
Chlorination was rapidly adopted after 1913 in the United States, and over the coming decades clean water would be piped directly into homes and businesses for human consumption. The toilet would allow for proper disposal of waste rather than disposing of it in the streets where it would go on to contaminate water supplies.
By eliminating piled human and animal wastes in the streets, installing sewage systems, and distributing clean water, city after city across the world began to contain what had up until that point been never-ending cycles of infectious disease outbreaks.
Even before the formal development of the germ theory, people had come to realize that uncleanliness seemed to create disease and death. The hygienic movement of the 19th and 20th centuries had to overcome many obstacles, most notably, the resistance of people who claimed the frequent use of soap was harmful to the skin.
“One of the most important aspects of public health works in a modern city is the assurance of general sanitary conditions, particularly with respect to the water supply and the disposal of wastes. The growth of the public health movement in the nineteenth century was largely a matter of spreading the gospel of cleanliness and prophylaxis. Long before germ theory was enunciated, sanitarians and health workers sought to convince communities of the preventive value of general cleanliness.”
In the latter half of the 1800s New York City began tackling multiple facets of the issue. In 1866 New York City created a municipal board of health to tackle dreadful housing conditions, forcing owners to make alterations to unlivable tenements.
Governments instituted city planning to move the polluting industries away from where people lived. Slaughterhouses, meat-packing plants, glue factories, tanneries and other manufacturers were slowly pushed outside the city limits to improve public health.
“… local medical officers of health, whose duties were to regulate ‘offensive trades’ (slaughtering, tanning, dyeing etc.) remove ‘nuisanes.’ regulate houses unfit for human habitation, provide burial grounds, and deal with water supplies, sewers, waste disposal and other environmental hazards.”
So much of what we take for granted in our towns and cities of today creates the environment for health to thrive. As history shows, this was not always the case and over the course of learning about and implementing these advances millions died of common disease.
In addition to diseases caused by poor sanitation and hygiene, food contamination was quickly recognized as a major problem. Contaminated milk was a major cause of illness and death in the 1800s and early 1900s.
“I agree with Dr. Simmons in the idea that next to the water supply, the milk supply is the main source of [typhoid] infection… one hundred and fifty cases in six weeks and they traced every one of them back to the one source – the milk supply. It was found that the cows drank of very filthy water, which was loaded with typhoid germs.”
– Dr. W. E. Bates, commenting on the milk supply, 1898
With the availability of rudimentary formulas and cows milk, breastfeeding rates dropped precipitously towards the end of the 19th century contributing to disease and general ill health of infants.
“Newman pointed out that breastfed infants suffered less from summer diarrhea than infants who were fed artificial formula or cow’s milk. He considered the high infant mortality rate to be mainly a problem of motherhood, and he emphasized proper training of mothers and the promotion of breastfeeding. Pasteurization of milk and milk stations were other measures that he proposed to reduce infant mortality rates.”
Pasteurization of milk and the elimination of added toxins such as formaldehyde (to prevent spoiling) quickly became standard. Chicago passed the first compulsory pasteurization ordinance in 1909.
Widespread food safety interventions included higher standards of cleanliness, improved handling of human waste, increased food inspection, better child feeding practices, and health education emphasizing hygienic practices. These changes were implemented at roughly the same time throughout the Western world.
By the 1900s many people were coming to realize that infectious diseases could be defeated through healthy living built upon the foundation of sanitation, hygiene, and nutrition.
“Accordingly, the present generation is beginning to learn and will realize more thoroughly as time wears on that the fantastic idea with regard to contagious and infectious diseases is absolutely erroneous and that many so-called unavoidable disease are positively preventable. It is not true each individual must run the gamut of measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough, diptheria, tuberculosis, and the like if proper precautionary measures be taken at the outset. Sunshine, fresh air, wholesome nutrition, exercise, rest and the hygienic mode of living are far more effectual than all the subsequent medication in existence.”
– Superintendent of schools F.M. Buckley, Connecticut, 1911
In addition to healthy living, children and women were gradually freed from what was essentially slave labour. Industries such as dressmaking were known as “sweated industries”, which for several months a year required women to work 18 to 20 hours a day in harsh conditions.
In the 20th century a boom of new technologies not only made life easier, but improved health as well. Electricity, refrigeration, transportation, the toilet, and numerous other inventions radically transformed the quality of life for the average person.
“Technology has had an enormous impact upon health. Innovations such as field drainage tiles, the flush toilet, water purification, and pasteurization have undoubtedly saved more lives than antibiotics. Automobiles have certainly reduced the hazard of widespread animal waste in the streets. Increasingly effective means of sterilizing baby bottles have decreased infant mortality from diarrheal diseases.”
Medicine in general, and vaccines even more so, contributed very little to the phenomenal transformation of human health brought on by sanitation, hygiene and nutrition.
“There was a continuous decline, equal in each sex, from 1937 onward. Vaccination [for whooping cough], beginning on a small scale in some places around 1948 and on a national scale in 1957, did not affect the rate of decline if it be assumed that one attack usually confers immunity, as in most major communicable diseases of childhood… With this pattern well established before 1957, there is no evidence that vaccination played a major role in the decline in incidence or mortality in the trend of events.“
– Gordon T. Stewart, 1977
By the turn of the 20th-century smallpox had radically changed from a deadly disease that killed as many as 20 percent of its victims to as low as 1 in 50. It eventually became so mild that it was often confused for other diseases such as chickenpox. By the early 1900s some began to recognize that sanitation and not vaccination had been what conquered smallpox. Smallpox vaccination rates had been declining, and yet smallpox, like all other diseases was disappearing.
In 1914, Dr. C. Killick Millard wrote:
“For forty years, corresponding roughly with the advent of the “sanitary era,” smallpox has gradually but steadily been leaving this country (England). For the past ten years the disease has ceased to have any appreciable effect upon our mortality statistics. For most of that period it has been entirely absent except for a few isolated outbreaks here and there. It is reasonable to believe that with the perfecting and more general adoption of modern methods of control and with improved sanitation (using the term in the widest sense) smallpox will be completely banished from this country as has been the case with plague, cholera, and typhus fever. Accompanying this decline in smallpox has been a notable drop of infantile vaccination. This falling off of vaccination is steadily increasing and becoming very widespread.”
By the 1940s nearly all of the dreaded diseases of the 1800s were nearing eradication. Between 1900 and 1943 typhoid fever declined an additional 98% after already significant declines in the 1800s. Measles, smallpox, scarlet fever, whooping cough, Diptheria, once major causes of death across the west were now minor causes of death.
“Only a comparatively few years ago the death toll from this group of diseases was serious, but it has now been reduced to a point where their complete suppression may be expected. The public health movement is said to be responsible for the reduction in mortality from diarrhea and enteritis, which in 1930 had a rate of 20.4 per 100,000 and in 1940 had dropped to a rate of 4.6. Advances in sanitary science, including pasteurization, better refrigeration of foods, and purification of water supplies, as well as the general rise in the standard of living are the main reasons for this improvement.“
With the lethality of all infectious diseases in free-fall across the West simultaneously throughout the first half of the 20th century, it becomes impossible to attribute the decline to vaccinations which were not yet invented, or not yet in widespread use.
A 1977 analysis of the effect of medical intervention on the decline of mortality in the United States since 1900 stated how little medical measures had to do with disease decline.
“In general, medical measures (both chemotherapeutic and prophylactic) appear to have contributed little to the overall decline in mortality in the United States since about 1900 – having in many instances been introduced several decades after a marked decline had already set in and having no detectable influence in most instances.. it is estimated that at most 3.5 percent of the total decline in mortality since 1900 could be ascribed to medical measures introduced for the disease considered here (influenza, pneumonia, diptheria, whooping cough, and poliomyelitis).”
Deep-Dive - Defeating Disease
Portions of this page and certain quotations are derived from Dissolving Illusions.
- Infectious diseases were rampant in previous centuries due to poor sanitation, hygiene, and nutrition.
- Infectious diseases declined in parallel to the rise of sanitation, hygiene and nutrition.
- Most infectious diseases were all but eliminated prior to the introduction of vaccinations.
- All disease which we never conducted widespread vaccination for, also declined at the same rates.
- The modern conveniences that we take for granted, flushing toilets, clean water, refrigeration, sewage, transportation, stabilization, clean food, nutrition, electricity, antibiotics, and labour laws, were almost wholly responsible for the dramatic increase in life expectancy witnessed in the 20th century.
- Vaccines did not save us from infectious diseases.
- Vaccine Safety
- Vaccine Efficacy
- Vaccine Ingredients
- Vaccine Liability
- Importance of Placebo-Controlled Study
- Herd Immunity
This page was made possible by the incredible work of Dr. Suzanne Humphries, board-certified nephrologist and doctor of internal medicine. Her book Dissolving Illusions uses more than 800 primary sources to painstakingly reconstruct the history of infectious diseases, how humanity finally conquered them, and the near-zero impact that vaccinations had on the course of history. It is a phenomenal read that leaves no stones unturned on the road to dethroning vaccinations as our lord and saviour.
Disclaimer: Informed Consent Canada does not participate in commission structures or receive any benefits whatsoever from its recommendations.