Europe had been parting from its ages-old tie with religion and entering a new age of science and secularization. People were gaining wisdom from more the scripture. Intellectuality was less dominated by religion and increasingly dominated by natural science, economics, sociology and history. The trend away from religion in intellectual life was broad in its impact. Leading composers were writing symphonies and sonatas rather than predominately ecclesiastic music. Rather than building churches and religious monuments, architects were being commissioned to build museums, libraries and other public buildings. Secular newspapers were becoming more influential. Works of literary fiction were ignoring devotion to God and instead uncovering personalities and the character of people.
It was a trend away from the devotion to godly magic and the magic of rituals practiced by the ancients. In ancient Greece people looked to the magic of the Oracle at Delphi to find the best course action. Now the trend for leaders in the more technologically advanced societies was toward decisions based on charts, statistics and other empirical data.
And science was taking questions of physical health away from religious considerations. Through the Middle Ages the specific characteristics of nature were ignored. Instead, nature was viewed as operating according to larger, divine truths. Lion cubs, for example, were viewed as born dead and coming alive on the third day in order to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And into the 1300s, philosophically-minded mystics were trying to grasp the whole. But there were people defying these traditions. Influenced by nominalism, or by science, a few people were investigating specific aspects of nature.
Religion had provided meaning for what had otherwise appeared as chaos. The rise of science was providing an understanding that was intruding into he explanations of things. People were learning from scientists about the causes of disease, and a few were eager to improve public health. In the 1840s in Britain, sewage was still being collected in buckets, and the basements of many tenement houses were knee-deep in excrement. In rural areas people were piling sewage into heaps, and, being accustomed to dung, when they moved to the more crowded city they tolerated the excrement there. And the cities were not collecting garbage, despite the belief that people contacted diseases by breathing in bad odors.
Jeremy Bentham (who died in 1832) had believed in public programs and science, and a man who had been one of Bentham's assistants, Edwin Chadwick, advocated government action in behalf of public health. In 1842 he published a report that connected disease with an unsanitary environment. Britain's middleclass was opposed to any such public program, but this was overcome and the Public Health Act of 1848 was passed, which included the establishment of a board of health. And following Chadwick's lead, public health measures spread to the United States, France and Germany.
Microorganisms had been discovered in the 1670s by a Dutchman using a microscope, and now, almost 200 years later, it was learned that cholera was produced by the kind of micro-organism called bacteria, which attached to people's intestines and produced a toxin. Cholera was killing thousands every year in Britain. The Thames River, which flowed through London, supplied people with drinking water and was also glutted with untreated sewage. By the 1850s, it was realized that cholera in London was being spread by the people of London drinking the contaminated water of the Thames.
The microscope, an instrument enhancing perception, along with its relative the telescope, in the hands of thoughtful people, would alter the thinking of humans far beyond the offerings that had been put forth by the many who labored at writing metaphysics. People had reason to fear micro-organizisms, but the public was also in fear of the devil, and micro-organism would be replacing the devil as a cause. Moreover, combating micro-organisms would produce some widespread successes whereas, looking at the human condition as a whole, combating the devil had not been much of a success. Here was another reason for believing in progress. It would eventually be good also for commerce as entrepreneurs rushed to supply a product that satisfied a new want to combat micro-organic dangers.
Knowledge of bacteria spreading disease inspired greater cleanliness. Hospital floors had been covered with sawdust to soak up blood and other matter. Doctors had not been washing their hands and had been passing disease from patient to patient. Twenty-five to thirty percent of British women giving birth had been dying.
In 1848 in Britain, for every 1,000 persons 13 died from a disease carried by micro-organisms. Typhus, a disease spread by lice bites, was killing many as were measles, smallpox and respiratory tuberculosis. People were not living long enough for a higher percentage of deaths from the diseases common to older age, such as cancer and heart degeneration.
It was discovered that the human body was always at war with invasions from outside the body and that the body developed immunities. Virtually all city dwellers in Europe were exposed to tuberculosis, but only a small percentage died from the disease. Vaccines were invented to strengthen immunity. Vaccination was applied to combat smallpox. It was smallpox that concerned the inventor of vaccination, Edward Jenner (1749-1823). By 1835 in Britain, vaccination was mandatory for all. And vaccination became mandatory for all Germans during a small pox epidemic in 1874. But vaccination was resisted by some Protestants and by the Catholic Church. In countries predominately Catholic, death rates remained higher than in Britain. In the 1700s, smallpox had been as widespread as cancer would be in the late 1900s, when smallpox would be all but defeated.
Another advance in medicine, and dentistry, was the use of narcotics to reduce pain. In 1846 the first amputation of a limb – a leg – was performed on a patient under anesthesia.
Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
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