4 Tiny Historical Changes That Made Modern Life Possible

#2. We No Longer Carry Around Bloodsucking Worms That Make Us Poor

Despite its cuddly name, the hookworm is actually quite nasty. Hookworm larvae live in soil that's been contaminated by fecal matter, and their attitudes don't really get much better from there. After burrowing through the bare feet of unsuspecting victims, these tiny parasites eventually take up residence in the small intestine, where they start living off the host's blood like they're paying rent.

If this guy was a roommate, he'd put the empty milk carton back in the fridge after spitting in it.

Luckily, if you live in America and are a human, you probably don't have to worry about hookworm-gut anytime soon. That's because back in 1910, hardcore philanthropist John Rockefeller decided that he hated the little parasitical bastards. "I mean, just listen to the name," Rockefeller said (I assume), stroking his gloriously thick mustache, "Hook ... worm. That's just gross."

Rockefeller's foundation threw millions of dollars into wiping out hookworm in America: They built thousands of outhouses to prevent soil contamination and ran education campaigns warning people about the horrors that lurked before they walked outside barefoot. And it worked: Within only five years, hookworm was almost completely eradicated in the U.S.

What If It Hadn't Happened?

Hookworms mostly hung around in the South, where the warmer climate was favorable to its evil plans. At the height of their reign of terror, 75 percent of adults in some Southern counties were carrying the parasites. That meant that these people were dealing with anemia, fatigue, and impaired brain function. Northerners nicknamed the parasite "the germ of laziness," which is a bit unfair: "Laziness" is watching a whole season of Supernatural: Cat Version (in which one side of every scene is taken up by a giant cat) because your cat sat down in front of the TV screen and you can't be bothered getting up to move it. The key issue here is that you don't want to move the cat, rather than being unable to move it, because you're infected with worms that suck your blood.

So, not surprisingly, the results of eliminating hookworm were incredible. School attendance and literacy went up, because half the kids were no longer lying on the ground in a state of hookworm stupor. In states with formerly high infection rates, incomes as a whole actually increased. It's almost as if a healthy population is good for the economy or something.

BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images
"Look, I could fix your brain parasites, but then I would no longer be able to use you
as a living illustration of laziness when I'm insulting my son."

Unfortunately, hookworm is still big in other places that weren't fortunate enough to have been saved by gloriously mustached philanthropists. About 700 million people worldwide still carry the parasite, leading to higher infant morbidity and (presumably) a lot of Cat Supernatural marathons. So next time you're outside barefoot and step on a bee, just appreciate that it isn't a life-ruining vampire worm.

#1. We Don't Have to Worry Whether the Next Thing We Eat Will Poison Us

As we've mentioned elsewhere, today's food labeling and other food safety laws haven't exactly been around forever. Up until relatively recently, you could pretty much poop in a can and label it spinach, and the general attitude in most areas was that if someone got sick, it was their fault for not inspecting the poop-spinach more closely. Of course, we still have issues today with food poisoning caused by careless preparation or industry laziness. But not too long ago, if someone dropped dead after eating a can of badly preserved cherries, that was pretty much "Tuesday."

Flying Colours Ltd/Digital
"Didn't we have more children yesterday?"

Things started to change around the turn of the 20th century. Urbanization and the rise of processed and store-bought food meant that hidden food grossness was a bigger problem than it had ever been. Members of the nation's women's clubs, presumably sick of finding whole human hands in their lettuce, spearheaded a "stop putting gross shit in our food" movement, and with the support of then-president Teddy Roosevelt, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906. Things have gone downhill for hand-lettuce manufacturers ever since.

What If It Hadn't Happened?

Life used to include such adventures as candy dyed with lead and flavored with arsenic, and the use of tasty preservatives like formaldehyde and borax.

Hemera Technologies/PhotoOb
"Dinner's ready. It's bat. Embalmed bat."

If that's not enough to terrify you, keep in mind that Roosevelt enthusiastically supported the movement in part because, while serving in the Spanish American War, he was forced to eat beef that smelled like an "embalmed dead body" and was rumored to have been chemically tainted. Whether the beef was actually embalmed was never proven, but Roosevelt described the meat served to troops as "nasty" and said he would sooner "eat his hat" than consume it. And when Teddy fucking Roosevelt starts getting scared of the food being served, you know it must have been pretty damn terrible.

C. Coville has a Twitter here and a Tumblr here, and you should visit them if you're a good person.

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