The Fourth of July Had a Tetanus Problem

In the early 1900s, outbreaks of the disease in July were so prevalent it was called "patriotic tetanus."

It's a dangerous day, the Fourth of July. This makes sense. After all, it is a holiday that tradition dictates be celebrated with explosives. As John Adams prophesied to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776, Independence Day "ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

He was actually referring to July 2, the date when the Continental Congress voted for the Declaration of Independence. But no matter, the holiday is more or less celebrated with the vigor Adams prescribed. Sixty percent of all fireworks injuries occur on or around July 4. And in 2011, according to the National Fire Protection Association, 9,600 people were admitted to emergency rooms for fireworks-related injuries.

That's bad, but at least the Fourth of July is no longer followed by a deadly outbreak of tetanus, right?

In 1910, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a seven-year study on Fourth of July injuries, and the curious correlation of the nervous-system disease tetanus with the holiday. It's a bacterial infection that releases a neurotoxin that produces muscle spasms, which are not pleasant.

It came to a point where "tetanus cases on the Fourth outnumbered the total number of cases during the rest of the year," a 1980 paper in the Journal of American Culture explained. Tetanus was a horrible thing to contract back then: 90 percent of those with the disease "died writhing in spasmodic contractions." The outbreaks were so consistent doctors started to call it "patriotic tetanus." Firework explosions, as it would come to be understood, are great transmitters of the disease.

Those crying for reform appealed to patriotic sentiment, comparing the number of deaths each year from the Fourth of July to deaths from Revolutionary War battles. In this cherry-picked chart, it's made clear that the Fourth of July is deadlier than the actual revolution.

(Journal of American Culture)

In 1907, the Chicago Tribune issued a warning to citizens to keep safety a serious priority: "No assuming that it is a trifling matter which should not be permitted to interfere with Johnny's patriotic fun."

But this story has a happy ending. JAMA's publicity campaigns began to make an impact in the next decade.

"Indeed, the deaths, mutilations, and carnage came to stun American sensibilities and make the Fourth 'a national nuisance' and 'a national calamity,' " the Journal of American Culture states.

"Non-fatal injuries began to decline dramatically with an especially marked drop in more serious injuries. By 1916, the journal considered the matter well in hand and casualty numbers comparatively insignificant."

Let's rejoice in this great national accomplishment. Because nothing will keep your friends away from your next July Fourth barbecue like a case of patriotic tetanus.

H/T Yoni Appelbaum