Wednesday, February 3, 2021

TIL: "Aggressive tyrannies"

It was an epidemic. A serious respiratory disease was killing thousands. A doctor proposes steps to gain control of the spreading contagion. He calls for wearing face masks, reporting victims to the health department, isolating them from others, and tracking their contacts. Others resisted, calling the proposals "aggressive tyrannies" and "offensively dictatorial." Sound familiar? But this wasn't America in 2020 and it wasn't COVID-19. The year was 1897. The place was New York City. The disease was tuberculosis. What happened is instructive for us today.

The doctor was Hermann Biggs. Despite the opposition to his recommendations, Biggs persisted. Progress was slow, but twenty years later, TB cases in the city were cut in half. We forgot Dr. Biggs and his recommendations and his success. In our lifetime, the disease began to spread again in New York City.

The number of cases per capita doubled between 1980 and 1990. The pulmonologist Michael J. Stephen writes about the debacle in his wide-ranging new book, “Breath Taking: The Power, Fragility, and Future of Our Extraordinary Lungs” (Atlantic Monthly Press): “In a time when we had our most powerful antibiotics, New York was doing worse than Dr. Biggs had done ninety years before, with education and no antibiotics at all.” The story is a reflection of the remarkable fact that, in the twentieth century, an era of astounding medical breakthroughs, simple—and relatively inexpensive—public-health interventions saved more lives than clinical medicine did.
Source: New Yorker.

A book review by Brooke Jarvis can be read in The New Yorker. It's full of other interesting factoids, like where the six-foot social distancing rule came from. We have Carl Flugge to thank for that. In 1897 Flugge measured the distance "bacteria-laden spittle could travel from the mouths of volunteers." Six feet was his determination, and so six feet is still the recommendation today.

P.S. Wear a damn face mask.

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