Sunday, July 10, 2011


I grew up reading science fiction, watching Star Trek, and dreaming of a future in space.  I became an Aerospace Engineer, studied orbital mechanics and control systems, and later I earned an MS in Physics (Observational Astronomy).  I was star struck.  Needless to say, I have been disappointed with our lack of progress in space exploration.

The Apollo program was a cold war effort motivated by beating the Russians and while it was an amazing feat of technological development, it did not leave us with any sustainable capability.  The original concept of the Space Shuttle would have been much better.  It would have been totally reusable, with a flying delta winged booster carrying the shuttle up before detaching and returning to Earth.  But Congress nickled and dimed NASA to death, literally.  If that original design had been used, there would have been no solid rocket boosters to blow up, or drop insulation on vulnerable heat tiles.  But when the Atlantis touches down, we won't even have that capability any more.

In more recent years, there have been efforts at the privatization of space exploration, and I cheered when Space Ship One won the X-Prize, but more needs to be done, and it is still hard to get the financial resources needed to create the infrastructure that a sustainable presence in space requires.  NASA still possesses remarkable facilities and despite their brain drain, they still have a lot of very smart people working for them, but they are being run by bean counters who lack vision and are being strangled by the Government.  They need to break free, create a vision for sustainable space exploration, and take their case to the American people, perhaps even to the world.  There is an organization, called Kickstarter that allows people who need financial backing to reach out to the public in an effort to gain that backing.  I recently supported an independent publisher through Kickstarter, and it has occurred to me that this could be a new model for a number of endeavors, including space exploration.

Another possible method of funding would be to allow tax payers to actually have some discretion as to where their tax dollars go.  I read a short story many years ago that used this as the basic premise (it was a Christmas story, and I think it was called World Peace).  When the people in that world filed their tax returns they could go through all the possible programs and select those that they wanted to support.

Of course, if our government is really serious about turning our economy around and creating jobs, they could just increase NASA's budget instead of spending money paving roads that don't really need it.  Economic studies (see this one, for example) have shown the benefits of spending on space (as opposed to spending on defense).  And for those who think that NASA gets lots of money already, they don't.  NASA's budget for 2011 is 19 billion dollars, which is less than 1 % of the Federal Budget.

And for the skeptics out there it is already being done: 
Scientists Turn to Crowds on the Web to Finance Their Projects

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Paul Weindling, “A Virulent Strain: German bacteriology as scientific racism, 1890-1920”

Race, Science and Medicine, 1700-1960, Waltraud Ernst & Bernard Harris, eds. London: Routledge, 1999.  218-34.

This book is a collection of essays centering on the issue of race in science and medicine.  This particular chapter is arguing that bacteriology became racialized as a reaction to transmigrants crossing from the East in the 1890s.  This racialization of disease became even more pronounced during the German occupation of eastern territories during World War I.

By the time of the 1892 cholera outbreak in Hamburg, epidemics were seen as belonging to a more primitive time, when Europeans were considered to be more or less on the same cultural level as the ‘colonial’ races.  But even as outbreaks of cholera were becoming increasingly rare, bacteriologists were aware of other ‘Asian’ diseases that were threatening the European races.  Leprosy was on the rise on the Baltic fringes of Germany, and there were fears about the importation of typhus, small pox and the plague by transmigrants from the East traveling to Ellis Island.

As bacteriological knowledge increased, the identification of pathogens with diseases resulted in a more objective specificity, but it also opened the door for the possibility that susceptibility to a pathogen was a racial attribute.  If this could be shown, it could be used to give an objective scientific basis to the notion of different human species.  In cases where the animal vector (such as the louse) was identified before the pathogen, anyone infested with the animal vectors were considered a threat to the overall population, and it was easy to conflate the ethnicity of the carriers with the contagion.

In response to the threat of disease from transmigrants, medical stations were set up on Germany’s eastern borders that inspected and disinfected transmigrants.  These stations did not, however, have a consistent policy for such cleansing, nor did they necessarily have adequate facilities.  Policies could be quite draconian and dehumanizing, and the attendants were often coarse and ill-mannered.  Women and men were separated, breaking up families, and sick children were often removed to distant hospital facilities, with no information provided to the relatives, and no visitation by family members allowed.  Although there was no official interest in religious background (religion was not generally recorded) the German and American press sensationalized the idea that Eastern European Jews were importing infections.  Public prejudice against Russian Jewish refugees increased during the 1890s, and the stereotype of Eastern Europeans as living in filth and squalor was reinforced.

With German and Austro-Hungarian occupation of eastern territories during World War I, the situation only worsened.   Occupying troops enforced sanitation standards upon the population, often targeting specific groups within that population (e.g., Polish Jews, Serbian Muslims).  Anti-lice pamphlets were prepared in Yiddish, with the help of Rabbis, that urged the cutting of hair, the shaving of beards, and the burning of (infested) wigs of Orthodox women, but they were not effective.  Some considered this lack of effectiveness as being due to the ‘primitive’ religious culture of the Jews.  In turn, the local communities resented this intrusion into their private lives and viewed the delousing installations with hatred, even burning some down.  The Germans compiled lists of Jews that were to be forcibly washed and deloused every week, and closed shops if their owners refused to be deloused.

Labor shortages during the harvest led to the importation of large amounts of Eastern European workers into Germany.  Although the workers were deloused, the delousing was not effective and in 1917 there was a severe typhus epidemic in Warsaw, which aroused further racist hostility towards Jews.

In contrast to the attitude of German and Austrian medical officers in Poland, the Austrian medical officers in Serbia prided themselves on respecting local religion.  They used Serbian women to inspect Muslim women for typhus.  They viewed themselves as “apostles of civilization” (p. 230) and the overall tone of their actions was more moralistic and religious, than racial.

Unfortunately, by 1918 the prejudice of German and Austrian authorities against Polish Jews as carriers of typhus had increased to the point that refugees arriving in Vienna were held in concentration camps, under atrocious conditions that caused deaths among the inmates.  Medical officers believed that Polish Jews constituted an epidemic risk, and the Reich authorities closed the borders to these workers.  They were vilified as immoral, lazy, opportunistic, dirty and unreliable.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Beatrice Webb

My Apprenticeship, AMS Press, New York, 1977 (reprint of the 1926 London edition published by Longmans, Green & Co.)

For Beatrice Webb (née Potter) the underlying controversy of life is the struggle between the Ego that affirms and the Ego that denies, and it is upon the course of this controversy that the attainment of inner harmony and consistent conduct in personal and public affairs rests.  For Beatrice this debate was resolved into two questions: Can there be a science of social organization, analogous to mechanics or chemistry, that would enable mankind to forecast what will happen in society and allow us to alter those events.  And, if there is such a science, is science all we need?  Or do we also need religion?  This book is a tentative attempt to answer those questions and describes her journey towards socialism, the Fabian Society and her marriage to Sidney Webb.

She concludes, finally, that society is a vast laboratory in which experiments in human relationships are constantly being carried out, consciously or unconsciously, and that to survive and prosper we should equip ourselves with the knowledge of how things happen.  And that this knowledge can only be obtained by persistent research into the past and present behavior of humanity.  But knowing how things happen does not settle the question of what ought to happen nor should it because, with regard to that question, science has no answer.  Answering the question of ‘ought’ depends upon human values, which alter from society to society and over time.

For Beatrice, answering the question of ‘ought’ led her to socialism.  Her research in the East End revealed to her the physical misery and moral debasement that was the legacy of the rack-renting landlord and the capitalist profit-maker of nineteenth-century commerce and industry.  Some of these ills (low wages, long hours, unsanitary working conditions) she felt could be remedied by appropriate legislative action and pressure from the Trade Unions.  This meant a move from early Victorian individualism to an all-pervading control, in the interest of the community, of the economic activities of landlords and capitalists.

But even if this regulation did succeed in alleviating the worst injustices of the capitalist system, there still must be some way to insure a minimum state of civilized existence for every citizen via some form of socialism that would provide public education, public health, public parks, and public provision for the elderly and the ill, and some form of support for the involuntarily unemployed, paid for out of rates and taxes.

To address what she considered the psychological evil of a society divided into the haves and have nots, or the rich and the poor, a schism that would not be remedied by a rise in wages as the United States demonstrated, she recommended an alternative to the modern business model based upon the co-operative movement.  In the co-operative she saw the invention of a new type of industrial organization in which an industry was governed by the community of consumers for the common benefit of the consumers.  To this organization she wished to add Trade Unions or professional societies, whose purpose it was to protect personal dignity and individual freedom by giving workers the means to participate in the administration of their trades and services.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Social Control in Nineteenth Century Britain

ed. by A. P. Donajgrodzki.  London: Croom Helm, 1977
    ‘Social Police’ and the Bureaucratic Elite: A Vision of Order in the Age of Reform (pp. 51-76).

This book is a collection of essays concerned with the application of the concept of social control (borrowed from sociology) to the study of relationships between the classes in nineteenth century Britain.  Although the contributors have different perspectives on social control, all share a fundamental assumption that social order is not only maintained through legal systems (police and prison) but is also expressed through a wide variety of social institutions, both formal and informal.  The book purports to be the first collection of historical essays to make use of this concept.

The essay under consideration here, written by Donajgrodzki, is concerned with examining the common foundations in the thought of Hugh Tremenheere, a traditionalist, and Edwin Chadwick, a Benthamite (in fact he was Bentham’s amanuensis and a devoted adherent).  Both men, he claims, approached the problems of social control from the perspective of social police.  This perspective was characterized by the belief that it was a common morality that produced social order, so that any policy aimed at maintaining it would have to take into consideration not just the legal systems, but also religion, morality, education, leisure activities and even housing and public health.  It further held that if left to themselves, the poor were liable to be led astray, that is they were normless.  They are, perhaps, like a errant children, who do not know any better and must be guided in their moral development as well as in the everyday acts of life.

Donajgrodzki believes that the notion of social police may be an adaptation and intensification of pre-industrial beliefs about the proper relationship between the classes and the control of the poor.  In some parts of the country civil authority was matched by ecclesiastical authority, and this permitted extensive scrutiny of the lives and behavior of the poor and the possibility of social control through the power and influence of the clergy.  With industrialization the poor often gained some measure of economic independence, but this independence was not seen to carry over into a right for individualism, which was seen as incompatible with social order.  Industrialization tended to intensify the feeling that the poor need to be guided and taught, and led to speculations about how this could best be achieved.

Hugh Seymour Tremenheere, the first mines inspector, was a traditionalist whose duties included both reporting on the technical aspects of mining and also on the state of the people in the mining districts.  He felt that the way to maintain social order was to create a controlling and sustaining environment in which all factors, even the most trivial, were carefully considered.  His was a theory of reciprocal obligation, employers had a moral obligation to their employees, and the interests of both were the same.  He did not fear the intellectual and moral development of the poor and felt that it would contribute to social stability, because once they had been properly educated the poor would understand the nature of the proper relationship between themselves and the rich.  Industry would thus play the leading role in creating the proper environment for the working poor, with the state merely ensuring that the socially destructive practices of industry was curtailed.  The state should also contribute to the social welfare of the people by increasing the numbers of schools and staffing them with appropriate role models.  He also wanted an increase in the number of clergy, seeing them as front line enforcers of proper social behavior.

Whereas Tremenheere approached the problem of social control from a paternalistic perspective, Chadwick approached it from a Benthamite one.  They both saw order as being the product of a variety of social processes and thought that it was attainable only if the poor were watched over and guided.  But Chadwick believed that harsher and more coercive measures of enforcement were as important as the benevolent provision of the proper environment.  And unlike Tremenheere he felt that the state should take a much more active role in creating a systematic, humane and efficient social police.  The role of the police was to include not just the apprehension of criminals but also the supervision of public leisure and the enforcement of public health measures.  To offset their role as enforcers, police should also take on humanitarian and benevolent roles in a community, such as acting as fireman.  He felt that Tremenheere placed too much emphasis on the role of the church and that he was not hard enough on the trade unions, whom Chadwick saw as a disruptive force.  While he is often remembered for his advocation of state intervention, he was also enthusiastic about a paternalistic role for the industries for many of the same reasons that Tremenheere was.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

 Susan L. Smith, Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired : Black Women’s Health Activism in America, 1890-1950, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press,1995.

As the subtitle of this book implies, it is about the role of black women in black health care.  The time period under consideration, 1890-1950, was a time of legalized segregation, but it was also a time when the American welfare state was expanding.  Unfortunately those benefits generally did not cross the color line.  In response to this, and as part of the political agenda for black rights and equal access to government resources, black activists attempted to draw attention to black health issues.

The creation of a black health movement began as a private crusade instituted primarily by black club women.  These women constructed the infrastructure of their communities through their work in religious and secular groups, groups that included not only church associations, but also female auxiliaries and women’s clubs.  These clubs started day nurseries and kindergartens.  They opened working girls’ homes in the North and the Midwest to help young black migrants from the South with housing, employment information, and moral instruction.  But because segregation and racism prevented African Americans from getting even the most basic health care, these clubs focused most of their interest on public health work.  Despite personnel and monetary limitations, they provided health education and some basic health services to impoverished communities and in Atlanta and Chicago they tried to provide African Americans with the same basic urban amenities that white communities received as a matter of course via tax-supported city services.

In 1915 these reform efforts became part of a national black health movement when Booker T. Washington launched a health education campaign from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.  This campaign, known as National Negro Health Week, was seen by black leaders and community organizers as a way for advancing the race through the promotion of black health education and cooperation across racial lines.  The Tuskegee Institute served as the headquarters for the campaign until it was taken over in 1930 by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) and turned into a year-round program.

In the 1930s the statistical information now available revealed the plight of black Americans in the form of higher mortality and morbidity rates as compared to the white population.  Growing awareness of the problem among health officials did not necessarily lead to better health treatment for blacks, but rather led white officials to blame the African Americans themselves for their illness by saying that it was due to their behavior and, in the case of venereal disease, to their sexual immorality and promiscuity.  In response to these accusations, the black leaders responded with the statement that a population was only as healthy as its sickest members and called for an end to racist practices and the integration of health services, seeing these measures as the only real solution for the health issues facing black Americans.

By the 1940s the medical civil rights movement arose as black health workers struggled to integrate hospitals and medical and nursing schools and associations.  The effort was met by resistance within both the white and black communities.  But in 1950 the USPHS pronounced the end of the National Negro Health Movement and the Office of Negro Health Work on the grounds that the nation was moving towards integration.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Impact of the Plague in Tudor and Stuart England

by Paul Slack, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985

When he wrote this book Paul Slack (at the time a Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Exeter College in Oxford) was more interested in the social response to the disease than in the disease itself, devoting almost half of the book to this subject.  But he also realized that to understand the social response he needed to understand aspects of the disease itself, such as frequency of occurrence, which social groups and locales were affected and the mortality rates.  The addressing of these questions occupies the first half of the book.  The time period that he is covering, as indicated by the title, is the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Part I of the book gives us an introduction to the disease and its manifestations, as well as an overview of its impact on society and the attitudes and actions that resulted.  The cause of the plague was not known, and it was attributed to both natural and supernatural agents.  Similarly, the treatment of it incorporated both natural and supernatural elements.  Books and pamphlets were published that included both herbal remedies and prayers.  Special sermons were preached during plague outbreaks, and sometimes plague fasts were held.  Diagnosis was not exact and there were other diseases prowling the populations such as typhus, the sweating fever and malaria, leading to further confusion and uncertainty.  The plague itself was manifested in several ways.  There was the bubonic plague with its carbuncles, buboes and spots, which sometimes occurred in a mild form, without marked visible symptoms.  A more deadly variant of the disease was septicaemic plague, in which the bacilli invaded the blood stream, causing death before the external symptoms of plague had time to appear.  A third variety is pneumonic plague, which may begin as a case of bubonic plague that becomes complicated by pneumonia.  This latter variant changes the disease vector from fleas to humans as the bacteria is coughed out in the sputum of the victims and inhaled by the people around them.  It was highly contagious, had a shorter incubation period than bubonic plague, and left untreated was almost 100 percent fatal.

Along with the fear and uncertainty that an outbreak of plague invoked, it also placed a much more practical strain on the society in the loss of its members, sometimes in large numbers (a quarter to a third of a town’s population).  This depressed the economy as well as straining the infrastructure as those as yet untouched by the disease struggled to deal with the dead bodies that needed to be disposed of as quickly as possible.  Knowledge of the plague was passed down essentially unchanged from the time of the Black Death.  The first medical book printed in English was a Little Book on plague, published in 1486 probably as a result of an outbreak of the sweating sickness.  Outbreaks of diseases often seemed to inspire the printing of books on the plague, and in the second half of the sixteenth century a growing number of them were religious tracts and sermons.

Part II of the book examines the frequency and severity of outbreaks using parish records and the number of wills probated as indicators of the presence of plague.  Slack examines the records of Essex and Devon counties in an attempt to understand what kinds of communities were most likely to be affected by the plague.  From there he moves on to the urban settings of Exeter, Bristol and Norwich and then to the metropolitan setting of London.  From his case studies in the counties of Essex and Devon he draws two conclusions: 1) bubonic plague could cause a greater number of mortalities in a shorter time span than any other epidemic disease; and 2) that most communities suffered at least one epidemic during the course of a century and were lucky if they did not suffer more.  The risk was generally greater in towns than in rural areas, although living in the country was not a guarantee of safety.

He finds a more consistent picture when he examines the records of Exeter, Bristol and Norwich.  Although they differ in the timing and severity of the epidemics in all three cities the occurrence of plague was connected with the economic and social conditions of the communities.  Plague was a part of urban life.  It was a regular visitor to all three cities.  It struck Norwich in 1544, 1554, 1579, 1584 and 1589.  The frequency and severity in Norwich may be due to the fact of its nearness to the Low Countries and its large immigrant population.  It struck Bristol in 1565 and 1575 and Exeter in 1570 and 1590.  It tended to be concentrated in fringe parishes that were primarily inhabited by poor laborers.  In urban areas the occurrence of plague had a definite social dimension.

By the sixteenth century London had already gained a reputation as being filthy and plague was seldom completely absent from it.  The best records come from the city itself in the bills of mortality that it published in the seventeenth century.  These documented not only the number of deaths but also their locations, making possible the charting of the progress of the disease through the city.  A fresh outbreak would often begin, as would be expected, in the east, near the river and the docks, although that was not always the case.  Once again, the most affected parishes were on the fringes of the city where the poor resided.

Part III of the book examines the social reactions to the plague and the actions that resulted. The strategies to battle the plague began in London as part of the government’s general pursuit of social policies that might benefit the common man and improve social order.  England lagged behind other countries in their adoption of measures to control the spread of plague and often simply adopted and adapted strategies already in use abroad.  In 1518 Cardinal Wolsey founded the College of Physicians to improve English medical care, which also marked the beginning of public policy regarding plague.  Those policies primarily focused upon separating out the infected to pesthouses or shutting them up in their own homes.  Neither policy was rigorously enforced, the former because of the cost of establishing and running pesthouses and the latter in part because of the humanitarian issues raised and in part because of the difficulty of enforcing the isolation.  It was much better to prevent the outbreak of plague itself, and to that end quarantines were enforced on ships and goods arriving from areas where a plague outbreak was known to have occurred.

The publication of the bills of mortality in London documented for all to see the incidence and location of plague deaths.  The advent of newspapers helped to spread this information outside of the city.  This unprecedented supply of information allowed patterns of infection to be seen and helped to rationalize the reactions to plague, at least among the educated.  Although the carriers of the plague were not identified and without a germ theory of disease its cause remained unknown it did help to destroy the claims of its supernatural origins.

Plague broke down the social order, existing divisions were often exacerbated.  The people resisted the efforts of the officials to impose plague regulations because they saw them to be as threatening as the disease itself.  The public resisted the imposition of the regulations and the plague rate rose, which led the government to go to greater and greater lengths to enforce them.  While the public were concerned with the suffering of themselves and their fellows, the officials were concerned with maintaining order, and they viewed the plague as part of the broader problem of poverty.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mission and Method

The early nineteenth-century French public health movement
Ann F. La Berge, Cambridge University Press, 1992

Drawing from official archives, this book is more a history of institutions than it is of the people who were affected by those institutions.  Instead it focuses on a select group of men who served on the Paris health council and as editors of the Annales d’hygiéne publique et de médecine légale and how they created and institutionalized the idea of public health and hygiene, as well as how they put those ideas into practice through their work on health councils, in their publications and in their investigations.

Public health measures have generally been dominated by two different missions, emergency measures whose primary purpose is to deal with epidemics and regulations for dealing with public nuisances and waste disposal.  The former measures were usually temporary, enforced only in times of crisis, and the latter measures were applied mainly to larger towns and cities, where the higher population density made such regulations a necessity.  The idea of public health prominent in late-eighteenth-century France was dominated by an Enlightenment approach that emphasized progress, rational reform, education, natural law, empiricism and humanitarianism.  It included preventive medicine as well as practices aimed at improving the quality of life, and reducing mortality and morbidity.

While it had its foundation in the Enlightenment, the public health movement developed amidst the competing ideologies of liberalism, conservatism, socialism and statism, with liberalism and statism dominating.  The liberals wanted a minimal amount of state intervention, preferring solutions that were local and individual with the private practice of medicine, while the statists felt that the state should assume the primary role in public health reform and management and that public health experts should serve as advisors to the state, even proposing a medical civil service.  The debate between liberalism and statism took place within the context of scientism, the idea that science was the key to progress and that the scientific approach was the best way to achieve positive knowledge.

During the Revolution the national government had accepted responsibility for national health, and both Napoleon and the Bourbons had continued the tradition.  By the 1820s several public health programs were in place including a nationwide vaccination program, a national health care program of both epidemic physicians and health officers, a national administration of sanitation and a Royal Academy of Medicine to replace the Royal Society of Medicine.  There were institutions at the national level as well as at the local level with municipal and departmental health councils.  There also arose the idea of a public hygienist.  These were not simply physicians, but rather physicians who were willing to practice empirical science in order to understand the causes of disease and death, who would undergo special training for their job and who would work in cooperation with other specialists including chemists and engineers.

A major component of the mission of public hygienists was to investigate all possible causes of disease and death and to make recommendations for their solution.  In the process they encountered a wide range of health problems and issues.  Not only were they involved in sanitary reform and ensuring the purity of food and drink, but they also examined more complicated social welfare issues such as prostitution, wet nursing, foundlings and child labor laws.  Their approach to such problems varied but they all recommended regulation, inspection, and legislation to help improve public health.

They were aided in their work by the existence of the Annales d’hygiéne publique et de médecine légale, which was unique to France.  It was the first journal in the West devoted to public health and legal medicine.  In it ideas were exchanged and research published.  The journal also reviewed or published most of the major French works on public hygiene and served as an international forum on public health issues, including the coverage of foreign developments and publications.  This commitment to promoting and publishing their ideas was also mirrored by their educational efforts at the local level.  Because many programs were voluntary (vaccination against small pox, for example), their effectiveness depended upon the public understanding the advantages of compliance and the public hygienists were instrumental in that education process by providing reports of their benefits that were based on more scientific foundations.

This period also saw the application of statistics to the effort to understand the contributing factors of disease and death, if not their causes.  Louis-René Villermé did extensive statistical studies of Paris and his findings linking poverty and death contributed to the notion of death as a social disease.