Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Smallpox Inoculation in Charleston, South Carolina, Part One

Few people may be aware that Charleston, South Carolina was an early western pioneer in the use of inoculation to prevent death from smallpox. 

Inoculation for smallpox was not vaccination but a kind of proto-vaccination. It involved infecting people with the actual disease, usually by placing matter from smallpox pustules in a small incision in the skin. It was done in hopes of producing a mild case and subsequent immunity. It was the inspiration for today's vaccines. [Image: Inoculating for the Smallpox, 18th century]

Inoculation was essentially unknown in the West at the beginning of the 18th century. It had been practised in the Ottoman Empire and in parts of Africa for some time. Shortly before 1720 knowledge of the procedure arrived in England and in New England, most famously via an English aristocrat, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and an African, Onesimus, slave to Rev. Cotton Mather of Boston, Massachusetts. [See Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Smallpox Inoculation]

The British were slow to adopt inoculation, partly because the disease was endemic, at least in the more densely populated areas. This meant that it was always present. Most people became infected as children. Those that survived were immune. It did not fundamentally disrupt the normal patterns of life and work.

Moreover, inoculation was dangerous. It meant giving someone the disease, hopefully in a milder form. But sometimes, it killed or  disfigured the recipients. It could also spread the disease if the inoculated were not carefully isolated. They were contagious until they had passed through the disease. Many people demanded that inoculation be banned or at least strictly regulated, especially when the disease was not present in their communities.

There was also a religious objection. Many of the devout denounced it as an interference with Divine Providence: if God wanted you to have smallpox he would give it to you. Whether you lived or died was God's Will. 

That argument lost much of its power after a few decades, however. The 18th century was, after all, the Age of Enlightenment. A counter argument quickly developed, embraced by many religious leaders: Inoculation  was a gift from God. By the mid-18th century, some British inoculators were making substantial incomes from the practice.

One of the reasons for an increased uptake of inoculation in Britain (and somewhat later, on the Continent) was the success of the procedure in the British colonies in North America. 

The colonists were more receptive to inoculation than people in Britain and Europe. Ironically, in part this was because in the colonies smallpox was normally absent from their lives. It arrived in epidemic waves, generally about twenty or so years apart. 

This meant that whenever smallpox arrived, a large proportion of the population was vulnerable. Large numbers would become ill and many would die. 

Mortality rates were often 20 percent or higher. Survivors were often left with pock marked faces, and some became deaf or blind. Young women's marriage prospects could be blighted by the pocks. [Image: A severe case of smallpox, early 20th century]

These tragedies aside, economies and everyday life were severely disrupted by quarantines. These differences led to the colonies becoming a kind of experimental laboratory testing the efficacy of inoculation. 

The first such "experiment" took place during a smallpox epidemic in Boston in 1721. Mather, armed with knowledge from Onesimus and probably having read some accounts of its in Ottoman lands, convinced a local surgeon, Zabdiel Boylston, to try the method. 

Boylston inoculated 287 people. Six of them died, about 2 percent. That may sound terrible. But nearly 6000 contracted the natural disease, of which 844 died, or about 14 percent. Boylston published a famous account of his results, which emboldened others to employ inoculation, especially in the colonies. [Image: Title page of Boylston's Account, 1726]

One of the first places to do so was Charleston, South Carolina. During a minor outbreak in 1732, the South Carolina Gazette published an article describing inoculation. The author claimed that it was effective, but recommended against its use for concern that the inoculated could spread the disease. No one in Charleston seems to have adopted the procedure.

Six years later, another, much more severe outbreak struck Charleston. It began in May and appears to have spread from a newly arrived ship, the London Frigate. On this occasion, a local surgeon, Arthur Mowbray, began to inoculate. His action provoked a lively debate over inoculation, not just the prudence of doing so, but also the proper way of doing it. [image: Charleston Harbor, c.1770]

The South Carolina Gazette published letters by locals, mostly medical men, about inoculation. The doctors were divided. The paper's editor, Lewis Timothy, opposed the procedure as unproven and dangerous. The most vocal advocate of it was a feisty and somewhat mysterious surgeon, James Kilpatrick. 

He claimed to be from Ulster in Ireland, and he may have been born there around 1700, but he was a Scot. His real name was not Kilpatrick, but Kirkpatrick. His family had been implicated in Jacobite plots against the Hanoverian monarchy that had replaced the Stuart dynasty in 1714. 

He came to South Carolina in the early 1720s, possibly fearing prosecution, which may account for the name change. He had matriculated at the University of Edinburgh prior to his departure.

Kilpatrick wrote an account of inoculation after the 1738 epidemic in Charleston. He gave credit to Mowbray for having begun inoculation, and credit to himself for taking it up and defending it. There was a personal side to his account. One of his children died of smallpox in the early stages of the outbreak. He quickly inoculated the others and his wife.

During and after the epidemic Kilpatrick conducted a rancorous pamphlet duel with another local doctor, Thomas Dale, who accused him (and Mowbray) of spreading the epidemic through careless inoculation. Kilpatrick accused Dale of being ignorant of the disease and inoculating solely for profit. The dispute was not just a matter of income, but of professional rivalry and personal pride. It is likely that both men distorted the facts. 

Unfortunately, only one of the pamphlets has survived, by Kilpatrick, and his Essay on Inoculation (1743) is the only first-hand account of the epidemic. Nevertheless, Charlestonians who remembered the events decades later agreed on one thing: inoculation in 1738 had been a great success. 

Kilpatrick estimated that about 1 percent of the 800 to 1000 persons inoculated in Charleston in 1738 died. The population of the city was then about 6000. Lewis Timothy, a critic of inoculation, claimed that the death rate among the inoculated was closer to 3 percent. These figures are similar to those reported in Boston and other places within the empire around this time. 

These were excellent results, given that smallpox often produced mortality rates of 20 percent or higher. Among Native Americans, it was often much higher, because so few of them had ever been exposed to this Old World disease. In 1738 smallpox was estimated to have killed about 50 percent of the Catawba Nation. Differential immunities of this magnitude helped to cement European dominance of the Americas. 

Despite inoculation's success in 1738, the state assembly moved to restrict inoculation several months into the epidemic, by which time it was dying out. The rationale was that inoculation itself could spread the infection and keep the outbreak alive. The assembly did not prohibit it, but mandated that it could not be performed within two miles of Charleston. 

The motives behind this restriction were as much economic and military as medical. The epidemic had stifled trade for months due to strict quarantine and country peoples' fear of coming into town. 

Also, war had broken out with Spain that year, the War of Jenkins' Ear. The assemblymen feared that as long as cases of smallpox were present in Charleston, they could not rely on country folk to come to the city's defense in case of a Spanish attack.

By the end of 1738, smallpox had retreated from Charleston. It would not return for more than twenty years, once again during war. On this occasion, the demand for inoculation would be much greater, and the opposition much less. The procedure had proved its value. [To be Continued in Part Two]

P.S. James Kilpatrick moved to London in the early 1740s, where he published his Essay on Inoculation about the 1738 epidemic. He established a successful practice in inoculation and obtained his M.D, from Edinburgh University. He published a much longer work on the procedure, An Analysis of Inoculation, in 1754, under the name Kirkpatrick. He died in 1771. One of his sons had a successful career in the British East India Company, and rose to the rank of Colonel. Two of his sons also became ranking officers in the company, and one of them married an Indian princess. Their story can be followed in William Dalrymple's magnificent and highly informative White Mughals (London, 2002) [Image: James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the grandson of James Kilpatrick/Kirkpatrick of Charleston.

Sources: All the sources for this post may be found in Peter McCandless, Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry (New York and Cambridge: 2011, 2014)




Monday, 8 November 2021

Dying in Paradise

 South Carolina was the wealthiest colony in British North America at the time of the Revolution. It was also the unhealthiest. It was long notorious for its deadly fevers, notably malaria and yellow fever, both transmitted by mosquitoes. 

Dysentery was another major hazard, transmitted by amoebas or bacteria in water. The “bloody flux” subjected many to enormous suffering and in many cases, an early grave. Smallpox and other periodical contagions added to the grisly toll.

Wealth and unhealth were intimately connected. Both arose largely from the cultivation of rice with enslaved Africans, the majority of South Carolina’s population from 1708 until the early 20th century. [Image: Africans hoeing in the rice fields]

 It is widely known that whites suffered terribly from disease in the lowcountry plantation areas. In Christ Church Parish [now Mount Pleasant] in the early 18th century, the parish register records that 86% of baptized children died before age 20. 

Between 1750 and 1779, planter Henry Ravenel and his wife had 16 children. Eight died before age 5. Only six survived past 21. Of their seven daughters, none lived to be 20. Elias Ball and Mary Delamere, who married in 1721, had six children. All died before age 20. Many other families fared the same or worse. The death rate for whites in early 18th century Charleston was roughly twice that of the average parish in England or New England at the time. 

Less well known is that Africans also died in large numbers from these diseases and many others. This is due to the staying power of pro-slavery arguments of the 19th century, which claimed that Africans were virtually immune to the “tropical” fevers that killed so many whites. A benevolent God had “designed” African constitutions for this work. 

Gov. John Drayton summed up this argument in 1802: “these situations are particularly unhealthy, and unsuitable to the constitutions of white persons … that of a Negro is perfectly adapted to its cultivation.” In 1850, the Lutheran minister and naturalist John Bachman claimed that Africans were perfectly designed for laboring in the lowcountry environment. [Images: John Drayton and John Bachman] 

In stark contrast, some 18th century observers commented on the heavy mortality of the enslaved. An example is Alexander Garden, a Charleston physician and naturalist for whom the gardenia is named.  Garden served for several years as port physician in the 1750s. In this capacity he inspected arriving ships for signs of contagious diseases. This included slave ships. 

Garden was shocked by what he found. Many of them had lost as much as one-third to three-fourths of their "cargoes" during the voyage from West Africa. The ships on arrival were "so filthy and foul it is a wonder any escape with life.” (Image: JMW Turner, Slave Ship, showing sick slaves being thrown overboard, alive, based on the infamous Zong Case 1783)

Many Africans also died on the slave ships in harbor waiting to be sold. Their bodies were often thrown overboard into the Cooper River to save the cost of burial. In 1769, the royal governor published the following proclamation in the South Carolina Gazette:

"large number of dead Negroes have been thrown into the river … the noisome smell arising from their putrefaction may become dangerous to the health of the inhabitants." The governor offered a reward to be paid on the conviction of those responsible  in hopes of ending this "inhuman and unchristian practice." [Image: Charleston harbor, c. 1770] 

It did not end. In 1807, the last year that the slave trade was legal, traders brought almost 16,000 Africans to Charleston in the last four months of the year alone. The local economy could not absorb so much "labor" in such a short time. Hundreds died of disease on the filthy ships while waiting to be sold.

In April 1807, The Courier reported on an inquest on the body of an African woman found floating in the harbor. They jury concluded that she died as a result of a visitation of God. They "supposed her to belong to some of the slave ships in this harbour, and thrown into the river, to save expence of burial."

This was hardly an isolated incident. The newspaper's editor noted that such "burials" had become so common that something ought to be done to stop it. His great concern was the unpleasant thought that Charleston's citizens [whites] might eat fish from the harbor that had "fattened on the carcasses of dead Negroes."

Alexander Garden also treated many sick and injured Africans, of whom he wrote: "Masters often pay dear for their barbarity, by the loss of many valuable Negroes, and how can it well be otherwise -- the poor wretches are obliged to labor so hard ... and often overheat themselves, then exposing themselves to the bad air ... The result was pneumonia and other respiratory disorders, "which soon rid them of cruel masters, or more cruel overseers, and end their wretched being."

Further Reading: Peter McCandless, Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, PB, 2014) Winner of the SHEAR Prize for Best Book on the early American Republic, 2012.

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Saturday, 6 November 2021

The Real Adam Smith

The Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) is known as the "Father of Capitalism" or the "Father of Economics." These titles derive from his most famous work, The Wealth of Nations (1776). In it, Smith describes in detail the manufacturing and distribution system of his day in Europe, and especially Britain, which was then in the first throes of the Industrial Revolution. (Image: Adam Smith)

Smith famously declares the "division of labor" as a main source of growing productivity. in his time. He establishes the law of supply and demand, and demonstrates its effects on the availability and prices of marketable goods. He argues that competition in a free market will deliver more goods at lower prices than a centrally directed economic system. Things that interfere with the free market, such as monopolies, subsidies, and tariffs should therefore to be eliminated.

Advocates of unregulated capitalism love to stress these things. But to limit Smith's arguments to them and his "invisible hand" that supposedly ensures economic harmony is to caricature and distort his ideas. He would surely have been appalled by the gross inequalities produced by the vulture and crony capitalism of our age. To use a current phrase, Smith was an advocate of "leveling up."

Smith's sympathies lay with ordinary people. He famously said that a common street porter was not intellectually inferior to a philosopher. He opposed slavery and imperialism, and condemned gross inequality. Moreover, he was well aware of the real-world consequences of everyday economic actions and decisions. He knew that these consequences could be extremely harsh for those lacking the capital to establish businesses of their own, the vast majority of people. 

Smith admired innovators, but that does not mean he was a spokesman for business interests, or pro-business. He was pro-consumer, and stressed that the interests of the consumer were often quite different from those of the businessman. "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer."

His comments on merchants, manufacturers, and traders are generally hostile, even scathing. Of course, he famously said that they benefited the nation through the pursuit of their self-interest. By striving to enrich themselves, they produced and distributed the goods consumers needed or wanted: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

That was the best thing Smith said about the business class: that their pursuit of wealth helped to enrich the nation. Capitalist apologists often claim that Smith favored allowing business to regulate itself. This was far from the case. Left to themselves, Smith argued, businessmen would never leave their interests to the mercy of the free market. They would fight for monopolies, protective tariffs, and government subsidies, and they would do everything they could to repress workers wages: "Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above the actual rate ... Masters too sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate."

Proposals for laws or regulations of commerce emanating from businessmen, he stressed, "ought never to be adopted, till after having been long and carefully examined ... with the utmost suspicion." The reason for "utmost suspicion"? The proposals come "from an order of men ... who have generally an interest to deceive or even oppress the public." "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."

Businessmen were not much different from criminals: "A criminal is a person with predatory instincts who has not sufficient capital to form a corporation." Government tended to abet the predatory instincts of the wealthy in general, whether landed aristocrats or businessmen: "Most government is by the rich for the rich. Government comprises a large part of the organized injustice in any society, ancient or modern. Civil government insofar as it is instituted for the protection of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, and for those who have property against those who have none." Marx could not have put it more radically than that.

Smith argued that anything that acted to inhibit free markets was a drag on the economy. That included efforts by workers or employers to stack the economic cards in their favour. But he condemned the efforts of businessmen to protect themselves much more strongly than those of workers.

In any conflict with workers over wages or working conditions, he declared, the employers had the upper hand. Having greater resources, they could survive strikes more easily than the workers. They had other advantages: "The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen." "Whenever the law has attempted to regulate the wages of workmen, it has always been rather to lower them than to raise them." (Governments generally prohibited trade unions into well into the 19th century or beyond.)

Smith declared that a just society would ensure that the working classes would be fairly compensated for their labour, which he saw as the ultimate source of wealth: "No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged."

Finally, the just society would also mandate a system of graduated taxation based on wealth: "It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but in something more than in that proportion."

It is well past time to relegate Adam Smith, the so-called guru of unregulated capitalism, to the dustbin of history. (Image: Muir's portrait of Smith, done shortly after Smith's death.)

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Pioneer of Natural Selection: William Charles Wells

William Charles Wells is one of those historical figures who should be better known than he is. He was the first person to propose the theory of natural selection, decades before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. He was also the first to explain why dew forms on grass.

Wells was born in Charleston [then Charlestown], South Carolina in 1757 of Scottish immigrant parents. His father, Robert Wells, established a successful business as a printer, bookseller, and newspaper publisher in the town. [Image: Wells Shop, 71 Tradd Street]

When he was eleven, William's parents sent him to Scotland for education. Upon completion of his preparatory studies two years later, he attended Edinburgh University for a year. 

During his time in Scotland he made several lifelong friendships. One of his closest friends was David Hume, nephew of the famous philosopher of the same name. It is very likely he met the philosopher himself or at least became familiar with his ideas. 

Wells returned to Charleston in 1771 and started a medical apprenticeship under Dr. Alexander Garden, one of the most respected physicians in the town. Garden was also a respected naturalist for whom Linnaeus named the gardenia

In 1775, Wells left Charleston abruptly for London. The move was prompted by the beginning of the American War for Independence. He had refused to sign a document calling for armed resistance to the British government. His father, an ardent Loyalist, had already gone to London earlier that year.

The following year he enrolled again at the University of Edinburgh and studied medicine. In 1778 he returned to London and took a course of lectures under the famed anatomist William Hunter. He was also accepted as a surgeon's pupil at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. 

In 1779 he enlisted as a surgeon in a Scottish regiment in the Netherlands. According to his own account he resigned his commission due to ill-treatment by his commanding officer. He challenged the officer to a duel, but the officer refused to respond.

Wells then enrolled in the University of Leiden and prepared a dissertation, On Cold. He submitted it to Edinburgh in 1780 and received his M.D.

In May 1780, the British captured Charleston. Wells returned early in 1781 to manage his family's affairs there. For more than a year he wore many hats: he worked as a printer, bookseller, merchant, and a trustee for the properties of some of his father's friends. He also served in the Loyalist militia. 

When the British evacuated Charleston in December 1782, Wells removed to St. Augustine, where he established the first weekly newspaper in Florida, The East Florida Gazette. The paper did not last long, however. The British returned Florida to Spain in 1784 as part of the treaty ending the American War for Independence. [Image: one of the surviving issues of the The East Florida Gazette

From Florida, Wells returned to London and lived near or with his parents. His father Robert had prospered there initially as a printer on Fleet Street, but fell into heavy debt before his death in 1794.  

After returning to London, Wells devoted himself to medical and scientific pursuits. He became one of the physicians to the charitable Finsbury Dispensary in 1790 and joined the medical staff of St. Thomas's Hospital in 1798 as an Assistant Physician. 

Two years later, he was appointed Physician at St. Thomas. He never prospered particularly in medicine, however, a fact he attributed in part to his exclusion from the prestigious Royal College of Physicians. Membership was then effectively restricted to M.D.s from Oxford and Cambridge.

For several years in the early 1800s he campaigned unsuccessfully to open the membership of College to graduates of all recognized medical schools. 

In 1793 his intellectual reputation was sufficient to get him elected to the Royal Society of London, one of the world's most prestigious scientific associations. He was later elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 

After his return to London, he lived for a time at Salisbury Square, Fleet Street. He later moved to Sergeants Inn, a short distance away on the same street. [Image: Sergeants Inn, Fleet Street, where Wells lived in his later years. It is currently a boutique hotel] 

Wells made several important contributions to medical and scientific research. In 1814 the Royal Society awarded Wells the Rumford Medal for his groundbreaking Essay on Dew. Through painstaking research on many a chilly morning, he was the first to establish that the cause of dew formation was condensation of water under specific conditions of temperature, temperature change, and the conductivity of materials.  

Later Victorian scientists, including Sir John Herschel and John Tyndall, praised Wells' Essay on Dew as a model of inductive method. Herschel used it as the main example of the method in his Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, calling it "beautiful." 

In 1813 Wells presented a paper to the Royal Society entitled "Some observations on the causes of the differences of color and form between the white and negro races of men." His object was to try to explain the origins of the human "races," which he equated with "varieties." 

In the course of the presentation, he stated the principle of natural selection 45 years before Darwin and Wallace.  After discussing the artificial selection of domestic breeding of animals, he goes on to propose that the different varieties of humankind are the result of selection by nature: 

"[What was done for animals artificially] seems to be done with equal efficiency, though more slowly, by nature, in the formation of varieties of mankind, fitted for the country which they inhabit. Of the accidental varieties of man, which would occur among the first scattered inhabitants, some would be better fitted than the others to bear the diseases of the country. This race would multiply while the others would decrease, and as the darkest would be best fitted for the [African] climate, at length they would become the most prevalent, if not the only race."

The paper was published in 1818, but Darwin and Wallace were not aware of it when they presented their joint paper on natural selection in 1858. After Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, an American clergyman alerted him to the existence of Wells' work.

In later editions, Darwin acknowledged that Wells was likely the first person to have hit upon the principle of natural selection, although he noted correctly that Wells had limited it to humans and "certain characters alone," not the entire spectrum of life. Ironically, Darwin himself did not directly apply natural selection to humans in The Origin of Species. That came later, in The Descent of Man (1871). 

Wells died of heart disease in 1817. He left behind a brief memoir of his life. It was published the following year, along with his Essay on Dew and the paper in which he proposed the idea of natural selection.

He is buried next to his parents at St. Bride's, Fleet Street, which was known as "The Printer's Church" because of the concentration of printing establishments on Fleet Street. A memorial his sister Louisa erected to Wells and their parents was destroyed by German bombs in World War II.

Louisa Wells Aikman was herself a music score collector and author. She was banished from South Carolina as a Loyalist in 1778. She recorded her experiences in A Voyage from South Carolina to London (London, 1779). Another of Wells' sisters, Helena, was the author of several books, including two novels. Wells never married and had no known children. 

Sources: The main source for Wells' life is his short memoir mentioned above.   

An overview of Well's life and a detailed analysis of his work can be found in N.J. Wade, Destined for Distinguished Oblivion: the Scientific Vision of William Charles Wells (New York: Springer, 2003)



Sunday, 19 September 2021

Isambard Kingdom Brunel: The Second Greatest Briton?

In 2002, the BBC aired a TV series called 100 Greatest Britons. The show was based on a TV poll designed to see who British people considered the greatest Britons in history. The series included ten episodes featuring the top ten vote getters. Viewers were invited to vote after each program. 

The original poll included some surprises, including Guy Fawkes, who was executed for his role in attempting to blow up Parliament in 1605. He didn't make the final ten, but I suspect he might if the poll were held now. 

Less of a surprise due to her recent demise, Princess Diana came in third, beating Darwin, Newton, and Shakespeare. It seems that the voters viewed her as a more significant historical figure than three of history's greatest geniuses. But, you know, royals.... 

Perhaps most surprising was that an engineer came in second of the the top ten. He led the polling for weeks only to be edged out in the end by a comedian, Winston Churchill.

Yes, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was voted the second greatest Briton of all time! Never heard of him? Shame on you. He was surely one of the greatest engineers of all time.

One reason for Brunel's high rank in the poll was the fervent campaigning of the students of London's Brunel University -- which as you can guess, was named for I. K. Brunel.

Although few English folk in these Brexit days may like the fact, Brunel was half French. His father, Marc Brunel, was a refugee from Napoleonic France who married an English woman. Marc was also an engineer. 

Isambard followed in his father's footsteps. His first major project was assisting Marc in the construction of the first tunnel under the Thames (1825-43). The Thames Tunnel, connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping, continues to operate as a railway tunnel for the London Overground. [Images: Thames Tunnel in the 1840s, before it became a railway tunnel, and train exiting the tunnel at Wapping in 1870]

In 1831, Isambard designed one of the great landmarks of the West Country, the superb Clifton Suspension Bridge across the Avon Gorge in Bristol. He designed many other notable bridges, including the Royal Albert Bridge across the Tamar River in Plymouth, which opened in the year of his death, 1859. [Images: Bridges]

In 1833, Brunel became chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, an enormous project that ran from London, Paddington to Bristol and later, Exeter in Devon. Brunel designed nearly everything, including stations, tunnels, and viaducts, and the Royal Hotel in the spa town of Bath. The Box Hill Tunnel was the longest in the world when it opened at 1.41 miles. Brunel designed it so that the sun would rise at the entrance on his birthday! 

In conjunction with the railway, Brunel designed a system in which  passengers could buy a ticket in London that would take them all the way to New York by rail and steamship. For the purpose, he designed a new ocean-going steamship, The Great Western (1838). At 236 feet, it was the longest ship in the world when launched. Its maiden voyage proved the practicality of transatlantic commercial steamship travel. [Image: The Great Western on its maiden voyage]

This success led Brunel to design a larger (322 ft) steamship: The Great Britain (1843). It is considered the first modern ship because Brunel used propellers instead of paddle wheels to drive it, and built it of iron instead of wood. It has survived to this day and can be visited in Bristol harbor. [Image: Launch of the Great Britain]

In 1852, Brunel began work on a monster iron steamship, the Great Eastern. At almost 700 feet (210m) long, it was the largest ship built before the beginning of the 20th century. It was originally an d fittingly called the Leviathan. [Image: Great Eastern

The Great Eastern was designed to carry 4000 passengers, far more than any other ship of the time. Brunel intended it for service to India and Australia, but that was not to be. 

Construction was marred by cost overruns and technical problems, and it proved uneconomic as a passenger ship. It was simply too big for its time. There were just too few customers who could afford the price of filling its cabins. Brunel himself died before its first voyage. 

The Great Eastern was not a complete failure. It was used to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable from London to New York in 1866, bringing about instant communication between Europe and America. It ended its life as a floating music hall and a floating billboard for Lewis's Department Store. 

To our great loss, The Great Eastern was sold and broken up for scrap in 1889-90. But Brunel had his revenge in 2002 by being named the second greatest Briton. 



Thursday, 16 September 2021

Imagine If You Will: The World Before Vaccination

Imagine if you will, a world in which 1 child in 3 or 4 does not survive infancy. A world in which one-half of children or more do not reach their 21st birthday. A world in which the average life span is in the 30s. 

That world was reality not so very long ago. In the late 19th century, when my grandparents were born, the average life span in the UK, then one of the most advanced countries in the world, was still only in the 40s. Both my grandmothers died at age 42. None of my grandparents lived to see me (not that that would have been the highlight of their lives). 

Human longevity began increasing slowly in the late 18th century, then increased rapidly during the 20th century, despite devastating world wars and the worst pandemic in modern times. 

The developments that made this increase possible were many: improvements in food production, sanitation, housing, personal hygiene, and medicine. In the world of medicine, antisepsis (from the 1840s) antibiotics (from 1940s), and numerous pharmaceutical and surgical advances all contributed to the increase in longevity. 

But I would argue that the most important medical breakthrough has been the development of vaccines. The first vaccine was that for smallpox, generally credited to Edward Jenner, an English physician, who announced his discovery to the world in 1796. 

At that time smallpox was perhaps the most feared disease plaguing the world. Mortality often exceeded 20 percent of those infected, compared to about 1 percent for Covid19. Survivors could suffer long-term impairment: often a pock-marked face, sometimes a loss of sight or hearing. 

Jenner (or a friend of his) also gave us the words "vaccine" and "vaccination." They derive from the Latin for "cow" -- vacca. Why "cow"? you may ask. His vaccine consisted of cowpox matter, a milder but related disease once common in cows.

Jenner's vaccine has a backstory. He was not the first to use cowpox matter to prevent smallpox. An English farmer, Benjamin Jesty, had used it about twenty years before. But Jesty did not publicize it. Jenner did, and reaped a fortune. 

A different method of smallpox prevention was widely used in parts of the world before Jenner's discovery. Inoculation, as it came to be known, involved purposely infecting healthy people with smallpox matter from the pustules. 

Ordinary folk in China, Africa, and the Ottoman Empire had used some variety of the procedure for some time before knowledge of it came to Western Europe and America in the early 18th century. (See Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Smallpox Inoculation)

Inoculation was highly controversial. Some opponents rejected it on religious grounds, others from the fear that it could spread the disease. It could also kill. About 1 inoculated person in 100 died. 

In contrast, the natural disease often produced a case mortality rate of 20 percent or more. In some populations, mortality approached 80-90 percent. 

These facts help explain both the opposition to inoculation and the desire for it. In British North America, where it became common after the 1720s, some communities tried to ban it, but public demand for it was powerful, especially during epidemics, and in some towns general inoculations took place at public expense. 

Interestingly, as the American Revolution approached, many colonials demanded inoculation to give them "liberty" from a dread disease, not as an infringement of their freedom. 

During the American War for Independence, General Washington ordered the inoculation of all soldiers in the Continental Army, a move that helped secure victory over the British.  

The soldiers obeyed Washington's order. In fact, many of them were demanding it, even inoculating themselves when it was still prohibited. Compare that to the attitudes of today's anti-vaxxers.

Twenty years after Washington's directive, news of Jenner's vaccine began to spread around the world. In many countries it became mandatory and free. When my family emigrated to America from the UK in 1952, we had to provide proof of smallpox vaccination to be admitted. I still have a faint imprint of the scar on my left arm. 

Eventually, in 1979, the vaccine achieved something unique. The World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been eliminated from the world. 

No other vaccine has achieved this yet, although the polio vaccine has nearly eradicated a disease that terrified parents in the early 20th century. 

One reason why the smallpox vaccine was so successful is that the causative virus is highly stable. In some types of diseases, notably influenza, the causative organism mutates often. 

Vaccines do not always provide complete or lasting immunity. But the array of vaccines science has developed since Jenner has saved hundreds of millions of lives. 

Below is a list of some of the main ones, and the year in which each vaccine was first developed or approved (In some cases, more effective vaccines came later):

Cholera -- 1880

Rabies -- 1885

Tetanus -- 1890

Typhoid Fever -- 1896

Bubonic Plague -- 1897

Tuberculosis -- 1921

Diphtheria -- 1923

Scarlet Fever -- 1924

Pertussis (Whooping Cough) -- 1926

Yellow Fever -- 1932

Typhus -- 1937

Influenza -- 1937 (first of many)

Polio -- 1952

Measles -- 1963 

Mumps -- 1967

Rubella (German Measles) -- 1970

Pneumonia -- 1977

Meningitis -- 1978

Hepatitis B -- 1981

Chicken Pox -- 1984

Hepatitis A -- 1991

Lyme Disease -- 1998

Human Papillomavirus  (Causes Cervical Cancer) -- 2006

Malaria and Dengue Fever -- 2015

Ebola -- 2019

Covid-19 -- 2020

PS. I contracted several of these diseases in my youth because no vaccines yet existed. They included measles, rubella, and chicken pox. I recently had the chicken pox vaccine to prevent shingles, a painful disorder that often attacks older people who contracted chicken pox as a child. 

Saturday, 11 September 2021

The Elephant in the Environmental Room: Global Population

Nearly every day we hear news about the coming climate disaster, which is about much more than climate change. It is about environmental destruction, air, soil, and water pollution, food and water shortages, species extinctions, unprecedented floods, fires, storms, and more. They are all related.

We hear about these things, but do our seemingly overworked minds really comprehend it all? Media coverage of the looming catastrophe is too limited to have the required impact. Besides, most people have more important things to attend to, like the lives of celebrities and the everyday struggle to survive  -- or making a fortune exploiting the environment.  

Even if the reporting on climate change was increased considerably, discussion of the problem largely ignores one of its main causes: the pressure of human population.  This is my "elephant in the room." Too many people ignore its relevance to many global problems. For many reasons, some of them good, it is a highly controversial subject. A media dependent upon advertising revenue tiptoes around it at best, ignores it at worst. The rest of us do so at our peril.

For many millennia, the human population of this globe we inhabit could have been counted in the thousands or millions -- if  anyone had the tools to count them, which they didn't until quite recently. 

Around 1750, the world entered a period of sustained population rise. By 1800 it approached a billion for the first time. Few people noticed. In fact, many people believed the human population was declining.

One who disagreed was Thomas Malthus, an Anglican parson who published  An Essay on Population in 1796. Malthus warned of the tendency of population to outstrip resources, leading to famine, disease, and war. Malthus called these disasters "natural checks" to population growth.

These natural -- and horrible -- checks, he wrote, bring populations back into line for a time. But human beings are forgetful. They soon procreate themselves into a renewed cycle of suffering. Would it not be better, Malthus wrote, to avoid this vicious circle by limiting our numbers by "artificial" checks? 

Malthus received abundant criticism. Some observers proclaimed him a Cassandra, a prophet of doom. Others denounced his suggested method of reducing population. He called it "self-restraint." By this he meant, in effect, sexual abstinence. Many critics viewed that as laughable, given the power of human sexual drives.

Some methods of contraception existed, but these were associated with prostitution, libertinism, and sin. As a clergyman, Malthus could not or would not suggest those. In fact, he denounced them as "vice." 

Malthus did gain a following. But many of those who accepted his diagnosis of the problem rejected his solution as impractical. These "Neo-Malthusians" argued that the only practical way to limit population was by spreading knowledge of, and improving, methods of contraception. 

Disseminating such knowledge was illegal in most countries, however, and sometimes led to fines and/or imprisonment. In any case, the efforts of the Neo-Malthusians did little to curb the growth of the human population.

By 1900, it had reached around close to 2 billion. During the next century, despite two devastating world wars and the worst pandemic in modern history, it soared to over 6 billion. It is currently (2021), close to 8 billion. Projections vary, but experts estimate that it could reach twice that number by 2100. 

Some experts claim that the earth can support far more people than it currently does. That may be true, but at what level of existence for the masses? And with what consequences for the rest of the natural world?

Even in prosperous, "peaceful" countries untold millions struggle merely to survive. In the less prosperous nations, a couple billion are living in conditions no better than those of the preindustrial world. Often worse, because these unlucky people are packed into festering, fetid slums with inadequate supplies of clean water and sanitation. 

A common and humane answer to this is the need to raise their standard of living through education, women's rights, social security, improved housing, health care and the like. No friend of mankind can oppose such improvements. But a few billion new consumers will put additional pressure on an already distressed natural environment. 

Perhaps Malthus's "natural checks" will eventually reduce population to environmentally sustainable levels. But "eventually" may be too late for the health of the planet. 

Besides, why let those horrors loose upon ourselves when we have the means to curb population in our hands? Humans must learn to limit their numbers themselves. Please note that I am not advocating eugenics or any of its more horrific solutions.  

Be assured: the affluent will always find a way to maintain a high standard of life -- at least until there is no longer a way to be found. I suppose they will go off to Mars at that point. I wish them the joy of it. We can do better here on earth, if we will it.