The mysterious sickness that made a million of people fall asleep at once

Plus other fun facts from The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.
a person sleeping
Routine sleepiness is one thing—but sleeping sickness is on a whole new level. Deposit Photos

What’s the weirdest thing you learned this week? Well, whatever it is, we promise you’ll have an even weirder answer if you listen to PopSci’s hit podcastThe Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits AppleSpotifyYouTube, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every-other Wednesday morning. It’s your new favorite source for the strangest science-adjacent facts, figures, and Wikipedia spirals the editors of Popular Science can muster. If you like the stories in this post, we guarantee you’ll love the show.

FACT: The dishwasher was invented by one of America’s first girlbosses

By Sara Kiley Watson

Behind many inventions are typically pretty interesting people. After all, to dream up and actually create some of the stuff we have on earth takes a lot of creativity and will, especially when it comes to the devices we often take for granted today. Take the dishwasher

You might not think about the dishwasher that often, but trust me, when you don’t have one, you’ll be thinking about it. Washing dishes, after all, is a chore. And back in the 1800s, chores were a full time job. But dishes were one aspect that frankly Josephine Cochrane didn’t have the time for. This is a story of an invention not driven by much more than frustration—and tells the tale of one of America’s first innovative girl bosses. 

FACT: This mysterious sickness put a million people to sleep

By Rachel Feltman 

In the graphic novel and Netflix series Sandman, the world is struck by a mysterious plague called the sleepy sickness, which leaves sufferers in a fairytale-esque slumber for decades. Believe it or not, this spooky sleepy sickness is based on a very real pandemic that happened during the early 20th century. And it’s one that scientists still don’t fully understand.

As you can probably guess, the real-life version of the sleepy sickness didn’t actually strike millions of people at once. But the truth is only a little less unsettling. 

This disease, which in extreme cases can cause victims to fall into a coma-like state, spread through the world for more than a decade starting in late 1916, and affected at least a million people during that time. 

The scariest thing about encephalitis lethargica is that we’re still not sure exactly what it is

Because we know so little about this illness, we also don’t know of any particularly effective treatments or cures for it. But the good news is that some of the people who survived the 20th century pandemic only to suffer from symptoms like muscle rigidity and catatonia did eventually recover. 

In the 1960s, neurologist and writer and absolute king of my heart Oliver Sacks treated several survivors who were living in a nursing home in the Bronx. He noticed that while they were thought to be totally unresponsive, most of them showed some kind of reaction to random bits of stimuli, like reflexively catching things tossed at them or reacting to music or touch. He decided to try treating them with L-DOPA, which is an amino acid that’s able to cross the blood-brain barrier and raise dopamine levels. The results were profound and shocking, with some patients regaining consciousness and the ability to interact with the world. That story is the subject of the book and film Awakenings, which I really recommend, along with all of Oliver Sacks’ work. Here’s a picture of him on a motorcycle being a gay icon
You can learn more about this unsettling plague by listening to this week’s episode—or by checking out my TikTok series about it!