What Was the Worst Year in History?

From the Dark Ages to Star Trek
Graham Roumieu

Peter Ward, paleontologist, University of Washington

Some 65.5 million years ago, the Chicxulub asteroid struck what would one day be Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. It ended up incinerating all life for hundreds to thousands of miles and causing a perhaps mile-high tsunami that wiped the East Coast of North America as clean as a billiard ball. And that was just the first day of a very bad year—it got worse.

Baratunde Thurston, CEO and co-founder, Cultivated Wit; author, How to Be Black

Sometime in the 1100s, the Chinese invented firearms. We would have been better off sticking with fists and knives. Thanks, 1100s, for enabling genocidal levels of violence for centuries.

Charles C. Mann, author, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

In 1520, smallpox hit the Americas, eventually killing between 60 and 90 percent of the continents’ original inhabitants. At the same time, the epidemic was key to the beginning of Europe’s colonial empires. So depending on where you stood, the year was a tragedy or a triumph.

Harold Cook, professor of history, Brown University

The Sack of Antwerp in 1576 not only destroyed thousands of lives and a great city, but created economic chaos in Europe. The same year saw the rise of the Holy League in France. Self-righteousness, plots, and spies were everywhere.

Nathaniel Philbrick, author, Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution

In 1675, the considerable promise of the First Thanksgiving in 1621 was destroyed by a devastating Native American–English clash. On a per capita basis, King Philip’s War was the bloodiest conflict ever fought on American soil.

Peter Segal, director, Anger Management, 50 First Dates, and Grudge Match (out December 25)

Definitely 1848, the year gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Until then, you could find a nice piece of land in California, pitch your tent, and call it home. The housing market here has been a living hell ever since.

Margaret MacMillan, warden, St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford

Until the end of July 1914, Europe was rich, prosperous and peaceful. By that December, hundreds of thousands of men lay dead across the Continent and, although the world did not know it, Europe faced another four years of a conflict that would cast a long and poisonous shadow over the future.

Mark Kurlansky, author, Ready for a Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America

There’s a direct connection between 1914—which saw the outbreak of World War I and the initial embrace of modern warfare—and World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq, and even today’s drones. 

John Barry, author, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

The year 1918 saw not only the butchery of World War I but a worldwide influenza pandemic. Credible estimates of the death toll range from nearly 2 percent to well over 5 percent of the entire world population. It’s possible that influenza killed more people in September, October, and November of 1918 than AIDS has killed in all the years since it entered the human population.

Lisa Randall, professor of physics, Harvard

Despite being the year after World War I ended, 1919 wasn’t so great. It planted the seeds for World War II as well as for many of the Middle East problems we face today. Plus, between 1918 and 1920, influenza killed a significant fraction of the world’s population.

Molly Crosby, author, The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History

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