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The Possible Plague of John Harvard’s Foot

Science ‘n Tradition

By Sandhya Kumar
Sandhya Kumar ’26 lives in Greenough Hall. Her column, “Science ‘n Tradition,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

Walking into Harvard Yard for the first time, my eyes immediately settled on the prominent statue of John Harvard — commonly known as the statue of three lies. An icon of Harvard’s campus since 1884, the statue draws copious admirers every year, many of them at the ready with clicking cameras. On any given day, people line up to take a picture with John, and — advertently or inadvertently — end up rubbing his left foot in the hopes of earning good luck for themselves.

John Harvard’s foot has become a symbol of hope for tourists, whose frisky fingers have since polished the foot’s bronze cast into a gleaming gold. Every time I have passed by the statue, I have found at least one person at John’s foot — sometimes even a few — hauling up their small children, potential incoming Harvard students, to do the honors.

Despite the cheerful backdrop, I can’t help but cringe at the millions of visitors who come to try their luck.

As a Harvard student, I know what students do at the preeminent left foot as one of the college’s three most extreme traditions: urinate on it. So does touching the urinated-upon bronze foot bring luck or dread?

In my column, I will explore Harvard’s traditions through the lens of science, highlighting the often-overlooked empirical evidence one should consider when making decisions. As tourists and students alike, we get so caught up in the grandeur of traditions like touching John’s foot that we don’t really think of the potential health risks associated. In John’s case, the main safety concern is harmful bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that might accumulate on John’s foot over time, making it a fomite for disease.

While recent studies have found bacteria in urine, that doesn’t necessarily mean infection is incoming: Researchers believe these bacteria may constitute a urinary microbiota, a normal and healthy community not unlike one’s gut. Urine is unlikely to transmit most major diseases, with one notable exception being typhoid. Although typhoid vaccination is not required for Harvard students, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports an estimated 5,700 cases in the United States each year, most of which are thought to originate from international travel.

A potentially overlooked source of pathogenic bug exchange at John’s foot is the tourists themselves. The constant traffic of touches creates an effective environment for such critters to proliferate. However, disease transfer through a bronze surface is rare, as the disease-causing agent would need to survive on the surface long enough to be transferred to a new individual. Furthermore, we need to take into account the porosity of the naked bronze of his toe: Because bronze is a porous metal, any bugs deposited by tourists’ hands may sink into the surface and away from future touches, instead of finding, ironically, a foot or toe hold.

According to science, this tradition appears to be innocuous. Despite the likely layers of bodily fluid on the statue’s foot, I’d wager that touching John Harvard’s left foot is probably as safe as touching any other public surface, like doors, phones, and pedestrian buttons. You should take similar safety precautions with the foot as you would with contact on any of those other surfaces. Harvard’s maintenance staff already does, power-washing John like a car five or six times a year. To further rid John of pathogens, Harvard should consider periodically deep-cleaning and disinfecting the statue.

Even if we’re not sure how safe it is, people’s indulgence in this tradition is a fascinating part of Harvard’s history. Touching the foot is a way for individuals to connect with Harvard, and be a part of the University’s culture.

As for the luck derived from this act, the jury is still out. It is difficult to know whether you can really derive luck from touching any object. I’m personally not superstitious, but I’m a little stitious. A simple change in mindset can significantly impact how you view life’s challenges.

When I visited campus as a tourist, I fully believed touching John’s foot was really going to skew college admissions in my favor, giving me the subsequent boost of confidence to try to sneak into Annenberg Hall. Although that attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, a few months later, I was accepted to the College. So go ahead and try your luck — regardless of the verdict. But be wary of what may be lurking in the surfaces you’re interacting with, and don’t forget to sanitize afterward!

Sandhya Kumar ’26 lives in Greenough Hall. Her column, “Science ‘n Tradition,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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