1: Many people believe we live in the “worst of times.”  The data shows otherwise.  

Today we continue our exploration of the many and momentous ways life has improved over the past 200 years by looking at our health.  

“For most of human history, the strongest force of death was infectious disease, the nasty feature of evolution in which small, rapidly reproducing organisms make their living at our expense and hitch a ride from body to body in bugs, worms, and bodily effluvia,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Millions of people died because of epidemics, which wiped out entire civilizations and brought misery to local populations.  One example?  Yellow fever, a viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes, was named because its victims turned yellow before dying in misery.

Steven shares an account of an 1878 epidemic in Memphis, where those infected by yellow fever “crawled into holes twisted out of shape, their bodies discovered later only by the stench of their decaying flesh. . . . [A mother was found dead] with her body sprawled across the bed . . . black vomit like coffee grounds spattered all over . . . the children rolling on the floor, groaning.”

Wealth provided no protection against infectious disease: The wealthiest man in the world, Nathan Mayer Rothschild, died of an infected abscess, in 1836.

Nor did power: different British monarchs died from dysentery, smallpox, pneumonia, typhoid, tuberculosis, and malaria.  

American presidents were not immune: William Henry Harrison died of septic shock in 1841, thirty-one days after his inauguration.  James Polk died from cholera three months after leaving office in 1849.  In 1924, the sixteen-year-old son of a sitting president, Calvin Coolidge Jr., died of an infected blister he got while playing tennis.

2: “But starting in the late 18th century with the invention of vaccination, and accelerating in the 19th with acceptance of the germ theory of disease, the tide of battle began to turn,” Steven writes.  “Handwashing, midwifery, mosquito control, and especially the protection of drinking water by public sewerage and chlorinated tap water would come to save billions of lives.

“Before the 20th century, cities were piled high in excrement, their rivers and lakes viscous with waste, and their residents drinking and washing their clothes in putrid brown liquid,” Steven notes.

Then, in 1854, John Snow figured out that cholera-stricken Londoners were getting their drinking water from a pipe that was downstream from an outflow of sewage.  His findings brought about changes to the water and waste systems of London, which led to changes in other cities and an overall significant improvement of public health around the world.

3: The other silent killer?  Medical care itself.

Prior to the discovery of anesthesia, antisepsis, and blood transfusions, “surgery was a source of torture and mutilation as opposed to a cure,” Steven writes.

“Doctors themselves used to be a major health hazard as they went from autopsy to examining room in black coats encrusted with dried blood and pus, probed their patients’ wounds with unwashed hands, and sewed them up with sutures they kept in their buttonholes,” Steven writes.  

Then, Ignaz Semmelweis and Joseph Lister proved the importance of sterilizing hands and equipment.  The world would truly never be the same.  Doctors and nurses were transformed from taking lives to saving lives.   

More tomorrow.


Reflection: Take a moment to be grateful for the advances in medical care and resulting increase in human life.     

Action:  Share this information with a friend or colleague.

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