Links and Comments: Search Engines; Responses to Disease

I found the piece mentioned two days ago about London reforms after the Black Plague. Actually it was New York reforms after the 1860s. It’s an opinion piece in the NYT that was online four days ago, and that appeared in today’s print edition.

(Search engines on all sites are still seldom completely useful. One issue with the NYT site is that news stories and opinion pieces have different headlines online vs. in print. (Why? I’m not sure.) So after seeing this essay again, in print this morning, searching the NYT site for the headline “Mass Death Is Not Inevitable” turned up nothing. The online title was Your Ancestors Knew Death in Ways You Never Will. At least NYT made one improvement recently: the online articles say at the bottom what day’s print paper, even to the section and page, the article will appear in. But I’m not sure they do this in advance, or in this case I would have taken note.)

Donald G. McNeil Jr., Your Ancestors Knew Death in Ways You Never Will. AKA in print: “Mass Death Is Not Inevitable.” Subtitled online, “Some say we’re doomed. But science and public spending have saved us from pandemics worse than this one.”

The online version as an interesting graph (does this link work?) of death rates since 1800 due to various epidemics, of various diseases like small pox and cholera now defeated via vaccines. But here are the key para’s:

The death rate began dropping after the 1860s. New Yorkers — both citizens and doctors — had finally stopped arguing and reached consensus on some basic issues.

First of all, most finally accepted the “germ theory” of disease, acknowledging that it was caused by invisible enemies, not by swamps, trash, manure or the other nuisances that underlay the “miasma theory,” which held that bad smells caused disease. (Only a century earlier, Americans had given up on the “humors theory,” which posited that disease was caused by imbalances among blood, urine, sweat and bile that had to be rebalanced by bleeding, sweating or purging.)

They also agreed that whether immigrants had brought some diseases or simply suffered from them, no one was safe until everyone was safe, so they made public health universal.

As a result, New Yorkers took certain steps — sometimes very expensive and contentious, but all based on science: They dug sewers to pipe filth into the Hudson and East Rivers instead of letting it pool in the streets. In 1842, they built the Croton Aqueduct to carry fresh water to Manhattan. In 1910, they chlorinated its water to kill more germs. In 1912, they began requiring dairies to heat their milk because a Frenchman named Louis Pasteur had shown that doing so spared children from tuberculosis. Over time, they made smallpox vaccination mandatory.

Libertarians battled almost every step. Some fought sewers and water mains being dug through their properties, arguing that they owned perfectly good wells and cesspools. Some refused smallpox vaccines until the Supreme Court put an end to that in 1905, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts.

And goes on with:

Today, Americans are facing the same choice our ancestors did: We can listen to scientists and spend money to save lives, or we can watch our neighbors die.

Thoughts on this:

  • Medicine, as Lewis Thomas wrote a book about, is the “youngest science.” It was only 100 or so years ago that doctors realized washing their hands saved people’s lives.
  • The demonization of immigrants, denying them health coverage and driver’s licenses, hurts everyone. “No one was safe until everyone was safe.” It’s an investment; it’s risk management. How immigrants get here is a separate issue.
  • Reforms based on science.
  • And how Libertarians objected. (In the way religious fundamentalists object to so many other measures of progress.) I don’t want to debate about libertarianism, but I will say that there are flavors of the idea. On the one hand, I have no objection to the idea that people should be allowed to live their lives freely, without government oppression. On the other hand, libertarians seem to think an ideal society would involve no taxes and no regulations. The way I’ve seen this formulated is that libertarians want all the benefits of society without paying for any of its obligations. (“You didn’t build that road.”) Without taxes and regulations and government oversight, who would have built the Interstate Highway System? Launched men to the moon? Keep corporations from cheating their customers and killing many of them for the sake of capitalist profits?
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