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Health, Geology, Biology and Sociology

Science and Health | Geology, Biology and Evolution | The Sociologists Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer

Science and Health

Europe was entering a new age of science and secularization. People were gaining wisdom from more than scripture. More attention was given to natural science, economics, sociology and history. The trend away from attention to religion 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 more focused on personalities and character apart from religious devotion.

It was a trend away from devotion to magic. In ancient Greece people looked to the magic of the Oracle at Delphi to find the best course action. But toward 1900 in the more technologically advanced societies, in Europe and the United States, there was more consultation with charts, statistics and other empirical data.

And science was taking questions of physical health away from magic. Through the Middle Ages 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, mystics were trying to understand the human body as a part of their grasp of 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. With the rise of science, people were learning about specific causes of disease, and a few were eager to improve the physical health of people – 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. Cities were not collecting garbage, despite the belief that people contacted diseases by breathing in bad odors. Science changed this. The philosopher and political activist Jeremy Bentham (who died in 1832) had believed in public programs and science, and a man who had been one of his assistants, Edwin Chadwick, advocated government action in behalf of public health. In 1842 Chadwick 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 almost 200 years later it was learned that cholera was produced by a 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 people in London were getting cholera by 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, was changing people's thinking. People were learning to fear micro-organisms. The public was also in fear of the devil, and some people were combining the devil and micro-organisms. Combating the devil was not known as having been much of a success, but 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. Belief in the devil had not improved the lives of people; knowledge about micro-organisms did.

It was discovered that the human body was always at war with micro-organisms 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 had been invented by Edward Jenner (1749-1823) in his effort against smallpox. 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 scientific medicine, including 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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