October 21, 2020
Throughout modern history, there have been surges of innovation that follow close on the heels of major crises.
Within a decade after World War I and the 1918 Flu pandemic ended, innovators brought to market products and solutions that are, 100 years later, a part of our everyday lives. And before that, global health crises have perpetuated some of the most profound inventions and discoveries ever made. We’re talking gravity all the way down to the first mechanical bread slicer.
Check out this list – it’s literally the best thing since sliced bread.
The 1918 influenza epidemic marked a turning point in spittoon use, as medical professionals began urging citizens to just stop spitting. With more women entering the public sphere, the behavior came to be seen as unnecessarily coarse. And the wide availability of commercially made cigarettes meant folks no longer needed to chew tobacco.
The Black Death in the 14th Century forced new sanitation standards in urban areas and created the beginnings of a public health standard for communities across Europe.
The 1918 Flu pandemic rocked populations around the globe claiming 20 to 50 million lives worldwide. This crisis instigated what is now centralized healthcare in many European countries and employer-based health insurance programs in the U.S.
Nancy Mimm, a specialist in population health at Harrisburg University also notes that this marked the beginning of preventative care.
Nancy Mimm, population health specialist, Harrisburg University
“Physicians started focusing on the occupational and social conditions that promoted illness, not only to cure the illness but to suggest ways to prevent it,” Mimm says. “Also, public health started to look more like it does today, based on the practice of epidemiology—the study of patterns, causes and effects in disease.”
After the 1918 flu pandemic, in the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal required all apartments to have fire escapes, main hallways that were three feet wide, and separate bathrooms to prevent the spread of disease in packed urban housing environments.
The 1918 influenza crisis sparked some of the most important literary works of the early 20 century, including T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, William Butler Yeats’ The Second Coming, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
Through the 1918 flu pandemic, people quarantined in homes much like we’re doing today. One 1918 newspaper article described high school students “holding regular telephonic conversation with their instructors.” The local Red Cross in Holton, Kansas distributed signs for stores urging sick customers to phone in their orders. The regular use of telephones as a means for everyday communication grew significantly through this season.
The outbreak of the Black Death in Eurasia and Africa massively reduced the population of monks who could transcribe manuscripts by hand, which resulted in a surplus of rags, making paper cheaper and led to the creation of oil-based inks. These factors fuelled the development of the printing press.
In London in 1655, a wave of illness ravaged the city wiping out almost a quarter of the population. The crisis prompted scientific pioneer Isaac Newton to self-isolate at his estate in Lincolnshire, where he came up with his groundbreaking theory of gravity while, as legend has it, sitting under an apple tree.
Following the 1918 flu pandemic outbreak, British bacteriologist Fred Griffith sought to develop a vaccine and in 1928 conducted the first experiment demonstrating that bacteria are capable of transferring genetic information. Griffith’s experiment went on to inspire Rockefeller Institute researcher Oswald Avery, who headed the team which revealed in 1944 that DNA holds the genetic code.
While many inventions in the intervening years between the 1918 flu and WWI were not direct outcomes of the crisis, there was a drive for convenience and efficiencies that produced beloved household items like the electric blender, band-aids, and, believe it or not, the first bread slicing machine.
The coronavirus pandemic is already necessitating invention and changing behaviors at an astonishing rate. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis,” and if history proves to be any indicator of our future, then we’re already well on our way to remarkable discoveries.