A new year is supposed to inspire us all to ponder our future in the context of our past. In the case of foodborne illness, that takes us back some 23 centuries to the spring of 323 BC. In just a few years, Alexander the Great and his army had conquered much of the ancient world when they stopped to rest for a while in Babylon, about 50 miles south of present day Baghdad.
According to Greek historians, the 32-year-old ruler was staying at the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar when he developed a bad stomachache. Over the next few days, he stayed in bed, suffering recurring bouts of fever, abdominal pain and chills. The illness worsened steadily until, on June 11, he died.
For centuries, historians suspected he was poisoned by his rivals. But more recently, doctors at the University of Maryland studied the historical accounts of his symptoms and death and concluded that the emperor probably died of water or foodborne illness–possibly Salmonella typhi, or typhoid fever.
They summarized their argument in a 1998 article in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.
Chances are nobody will ever be able to prove or disprove the theory. But, either way, the mere possibility helps illustrate the fact that foodborne illness is nothing new, that Salmonella and other toxic microbes have been around at least as long as there were people available to infect and sicken.
As with the Macedonian emperor, the consequences have frequently been fatal. Based on historical accounts, scientists have recognized symptoms of foodborne illness in the deaths of countless historical figures, from King Henry I of England to English novelist Rudyard Kipling, and from pioneer flier Wilbur Wright to Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert.
Several U.S. Presidents are on the list, including Zachary Taylor, who was sickened and died from Salmonella or other foodborne microbes after eating potato salad and other picnic food at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Washington Monument.
Each case is a reminder that Salmonella and other microbes are equal opportunity pathogens that blithely transgress lines of race, age, gender and class. They infect the old and young, Eastern and Western, rich and poor alike.
Scholars, for example, believe that the fledgling English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, was ultimately done in not by hostile Indians nor by mosquitoes, but by repeated outbreaks of Salmonella typhi.
Wars have always been friendly to foodborne illness, probably because maintaining hygiene is more difficult with large groups of people who have other priorities. American soldiers fighting in the Spanish-American War were far more likely to succumb to typhoid than to enemy fire. More than 20,000 recruits contracted the disease and thousands died, many of them while training in southern states.
At the same time, the British lost 13,000 troops to typhoid during the South African War of 1899-1902–far more than they lost in battle.
Even the notorious Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692 may have been rooted in foodborne illness. Some years ago, a New York scientist theorized that the strange behavior of the alleged “witches” — delirium, convulsions and odd speech — was caused by ergot, a toxic fungus that infects rye grain, frequently with bizarre consequences. Outbreaks of ergotism, characterized by violent muscle spasms, hallucinations, and vomiting were common in Europe at the time, and could explain much of the mass hysteria that led to a tragic chapter in early Colonial life.
Outbreaks of foodborne illness probably date to the Stone Age. The difference today is that scientists and public health officials around the world have understood what causes them, and how to prevent them.
Still, hardly a day passes without new outbreaks of old pathogens, each one testing our ability to learn from a few thousand years of experience.