6 Insane Health Scares You Never Learned About In School

As we’ve previously discussed, history has played host to a range of terrifying diseases that did their business, crippled some populations, and then straight-up vanished in the messy aftermath. The stories we presented were so astoundingly grotesque that they shook Snoop Dogg to his very core.

Snoop Dogg/Facebook

So let’s do it again, shall we?

6

“Franken Berry Stool” Turned Kids Poop Pink In The 1970s

In 1971, the high-stakes world of cereal mascoting was rendered asunder by the arrival of Franken Berry — a cereal which, despite looking and sounding like it was created in an underground Monsanto lab, was insanely popular with kids. There was only one glitch: It turned their poop bright and irradiated.

In 1972, a 12-year-old boy was brought to the hospital with so much rectal bleeding that it had tainted his poop pink. Doctors kept him for four days, unable to figure out how so much blood was getting into his stool. After questioning his mother, they found out one change in the boy’s diet: For the past days, he had been enjoying Franken Berry, the brand-new cereal. So as an experiment, the medical team fed him some more Franken Berry — because the ’70s were a bit more lax about the whole “testing possible dangerous chemicals on children” than we are. And what do you know? Quickly thereafter, his poop turned bright pink again.

The condition became known as “Franken Berry stool” amongst doctors, who noticed a lot more children rocking up to their clinics seemingly shitting blood.

The effect was so staggering that the small outbreak soon made its way into the medical literature in an article titled Benign Red Pigmentation Of Stool Resulting From Food Coloring In A New Breakfast Cereal. (Best quote: “The stool had no abnormal odor but looked like strawberry ice cream.”) As it turned out, the culprit was food coloring, Red No. 2 and No. 3, which couldn’t be broken down by the body, hence its rather … dramatic exit. But it wasn’t just Franken Berry — other Monster Cereals were also dyeing kid’s insides. Booberry’s Blue No. 1 was turning kid’s poop green, but that didn’t distress parents as much as Franken Berry’s red. Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine whether people eating Count Chocula were experiencing a similar problem

5

Potatoes Used To Cause Mass Poisonings And Death

In case it is still somehow unclear in a post-The Happening world, the plant kingdom freaking hates us. We don’t know what we did to deserve this treatment (aside from every technological advancement of the past 3,000 years), but fortunately, we have finally succeeded in taking out Mother Nature’s most dangerous weapon before it could kill too many people: the common potato.

As the more botanically inclined among you might know, green potatoes aren’t a good thing. That coloring doesn’t mean they’re ready to eat (the natural world doesn’t obey the traffic light system). It only means that the taters are crammed with chlorophyll, as well as a nasty toxin called solanine, the same ingredient that has kept nightshade in poisoners’ top ten favorite ingredients for thousands of years. In small doses, solanine isn’t dangerous; it might give you a funny tummy, but that’s about it. In large doses, however, solanine poisoning can cause anything from nausea and diarrhea to paralysis and an incurable outbreak of death.

Before we created methods of screening potatoes for solanine excess, eating them was the poor man’s Russian Roulette. A bad batch of potatoes was a serious health risk, taking out everyone from groups of soldiers and schoolchildren to families and farmers. One of the worst occurred in 1952-53 in North Korea, after the civilian population was forced to eat rotten potatoes during a food shortage. Although no accurate figures were ever provided (big surprise), one county had 22 deaths related to solanine-induced heart failure. And if you need to start digging mass graves because too many people are being killed by potatoes, maybe it’s time to swallow your pride and give UNICEF a call.

So potato eaters, remember: If it’s brown, scarf it down. If it’s green, you might die from heart or respiratory failure within five to ten days because of ingesting a toxic amount of solanine. We’ll, uh, work out the rhyme later.

4

Soldiers In WWI Contracted Anthrax From Shaving

The Great War was hell. Sure, there were all the bullets and the bombs and the endless poetry, but the worst of all was the fact that you couldn’t even groom yourself without the chance of dropping dead. Gentlemen, cover your glorious mustaches as we talk of the unsportsmanlike anthrax-infected shaving brushes.

Although it might not seem to have been the most important priority of the time, beards were a serious hazard for those fighting in the trenches. The constant threat of poison gas meant that every soldier had to be ready in a split second to don a gas mask and prepare to counterattack. And the last thing a Tommy wanted to worry about was choking to death on his own blood because his bushy beard didn’t allow for the mask to properly seal around his face. We all suffer for fashion, but risking fatal seizures is going a bit too far.

As a result, shaving kits were distributed amongst the Allied troops in order to keep them looking trim. Back in the day, shaving brushes were made out of badger hair imported from Russia. However, there were all of these pesky Germans in between those soft Russian badgers and the prickly faces on the Western Front, which led to a thriving black market for fake badger hair, also known as horsehair. However, unlike badgers, horses can transmit anthrax — which, seeing as you’ll be smearing its hair all over your mouth and throat, is a bit of a dealbreaker.

Stewart’s Military Antiques
So heads up if you see that on eBay.

The resulting surge in anthrax cases amongst the troops was first blamed on “diabolical tactics of the enemy,” which was far too flattering an explanation for both sides. Eventually, the brass discovered the problem lay with their knockoff shaving brushes. One set of rushed-out guidelines on how to disinfect the brushes later, and German machine guns soon retook their place as the most dangerous thing for an Allied face on the battlefield.

However, while the discovery and rapid response solved things for the troops, these black market shaving brushes still littered the country, and because people were a bit busy fighting this World War, they caused numerous unchecked outbreaks. So remember, if you want to groom your hipster Edwardian mustache with an authentically old shaving kit off eBay, be prepared to also die an authentically early death.

3

Collecting Old Books Drove People Insane

We tend to go crazy with new hobbies. It’s never enough to simply start running; we need the right shoes, a heart monitor, and 200 hours spent on the internet researching toe posture. Most of the time, though, it’s nothing more than cute overzealousness that fades after one week and a thousand dollars in debt — which cannot be said of the frenzy that drove people in the 19th century literally mad with book fever.

It was called “bibliomania,” and sufferers displayed only one noticeable symptom: an all-consuming desire to hoard as many books as they could, whether through legal channels or by cold-blooded murder. The method didn’t matter, as long as they got their hands on some more of that sweet, sweet literature. The most authoritative text on the subject, Bibliomania, Or Book Madness, was written in 1809 by Thomas Dibdin, a self-diagnosed bibliomaniac. Dibdin described his condition as “almost uniformly confined its attacks to the male sex … to the people in the higher and middling classes of society, while the artificer, laborer, and peasant have escaped wholly uninjured.” In other words, he categorized bibliomania as a fancy person’s malady. He also provided a list of book types that were guaranteed to drive bibliomaniacs wild.

Cambridge Library Collection
And this was before truly great literature had come out, like Twilight and the works of Rob Liefeld.

So was bibliomania a medically recognized condition? No, but then again, recognizing and treating mental health in the 1800s hadn’t gotten much further than doctors asking “Have you tried being less womanly about it?” If bibliomania wasn’t a proper disease of the mind, how would you explain the antics of Richard Heber, a collector who was so successful that he needed eight houses to contain his collection of 146,000 rare books? Then there’s Sir Thomas Phillipps, a man so consumed with obtaining a copy of every book in existence that he bankrupted himself and his family.

These weren’t solitary cases, either. In 1842, during an auction of the library of the third Duke of Roxburghe, countless rich dudes went for each other with “courage, slaughter, devastation, and phrensy.” The auction itself lasted a full 42 days, with some books being so endlessly bid on that they were eventually sold for hundreds of thousands of today’s dollars. It was the only auction ever to have people lose not because they refused to pay more, but because their arms got too tired to raise the paddle.

It is safe to say that bibliomania was only a symptom of a much broader disease of the time: the pathological obsession with status. By owning a book, you were showing to the world that you were both wealthy enough to own a library and educated enough to appreciate literature. Once the exclusivity and prestige of this pastime died off, humanity took a good, long look at itself and declared that never again would anyone absorb their hobby so far into their self-esteem that they’d lash out in a bizarre mania.

2

Bad Olive Oil Poisoned 1980s Spain

Forgery doesn’t have to be of money. If the demand is right, unscrupulous individuals will even paint expired olives to look fresh. We’ve covered the far-reaching history of food fakery before, but never what happened to the people who ate such “food.” At least a three-dollar bill never made an entire country sick.

In 1981, people across Spain were struck down with a bizarre illness that left them nauseous, short of breath, and in some cases suffering from heinous neurological disorders. However, the scariest part was that no one knew what was causing it. It was targeting men, women, children, and the elderly, all over the country, seemingly at random. It was only after the afflicted had their homes searched that the culprit was found: counterfeit olive oil. As it turns out, near 40 merchants across the country had been selling industrial rapeseed oil dosed with herbicide as olive oil, because they figured putting “poison rapeseed oil” on the label isn’t great marketing.

Of course, as a grand gesture to the public, merchants sold this toxic goop at a very competitive rate, resulting in tons of families picking it up at market thinking they’d scored themselves a bargain — which they did, but it was the kind you typically sign in blood and kills you in an ironic twist. By the time the crisis was halted, the illness known as “toxic oil syndrome” had killed over 700 people and hospitalized a further 20,000. The effects of the mass poisoning are still felt today. Survivors live with a variety of conditions, including muscular atrophy, bone deformities, and even paralysis.

On the plus side, justice prevailed, right? Nope, Spanish judges dismissed the murder charges, letting the merchants walk away from their massacre with only a hefty fine to pay. But at least we know how to cure it the next time it reappears, right? Nope, the illness is impossible to recreate in a lab setting, so we’re totally unprepared for the next time some businesspeople want to make a quick buck by selling us fatally cheap cooking oil. Oh well, there’s always butter.

1

Travelers On The Silk Road Spread Deadly Diseases By Wiping Their Butts With Sticks

Before it became synonymous with kids buying drugs with Bitcoin, the Silk Road was a 4,000-mile-long network of trading routes stretching across Asia. It was on this road that travelers shared the four C’s of medieval journeys: companionship, culture, commodities, and contagious ass diseases.

In the days of yore, portable ass-wiping technology wasn’t exactly in the forefront of human endeavor. When traveling, your options were to either do nothing and buy a new pair of underwear when you reached Greece or use a stick wrapped in fabric to Q-Tip your butthole. For a long time, archaeologists ignored these poo-sticks when found in one of their digs — what use is petrified merchant diarrhea to our understanding of the past? But when archaeologists excavating a Silk Road relay station in the barren Taklamakan Desert looked at these sticks, they found a whole host of critters that shouldn’t exist anywhere in a thousand-mile radius. It was, sadly for them, the highlight of their careers.

What they found were larvae from multiple species of parasite — namely roundworm, whipworm, tapeworm, and the liver fluke. The latter is a particularly nasty bugger which induces fever, diarrhea, jaundice, liver abscesses, fatigue, and cancer. More importantly, the liver fluke only lives in marshlands, and therefore couldn’t have originated in the Taklamakan without hitching a ride on someone’s brown bus. Imagine traveling over a thousand miles with a cancer bug up your butt just to trade some cloth and learn a few letters of another alphabet. That’s how our world prospered.

This discovery also suggests that the Silk Road wasn’t just proving a highway for parasites — it could have also provided a route for anything from the bubonic plague and anthrax and leprosy to rare diseases that set your blood on fire. So we guess it was a lot more similar to today’s Silk Road than we’re comfortable with.

Adam Wears is on Twitter and Facebook, and has a newsletter about depressing history that you can go right ahead and subscribe to. It’s really good, honest.

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