Monday, November 13, 2006

Progress in Disease Control, Not So Much in Spelling

For those of you, like our president, who believe in "competing theories" of certain scientific facts, perhaps you would have liked to live in the nineteenth century. I doubt it. Here's Steven Shapin, in last week's New Yorker, reviewing Steven Johnson's new book The Ghost Map, about the cholera epidemic in London:
At the time, the idea that cholera might be transmitted by a waterborne poison ran against the grain of medical opinion. Disease was not generally viewed as a "thing" -- a specific pathological entity caused by a specific external agency. Instead, it was common to suppose that diseases reflected an imbalance of the four humors (blood, phlegm, and yellow and black bile), an imbalance ascribed to a large range of behaviors and environmental factors. Moreover, epidemic disease -- literally, disease coming "upon the people" -- was then widely ascribed not to contagion but to atmospheric "miasmas." In the seventeenth century, the great English physician Thomas Sydenham had introduced the notion of an "epidemic constitution of the atmosphere." Something had contaminated the local air (possibly, he thought, noxious effluvia from "the bowels of the earth") in a way that unbalanced the humors. The occasional appearance of these effluvia accounted for the intermittent character of epidemic disease. The miasmal theory remained medical orthodoxy for about two centuries. ... The fact that the poor suffered most in many epidemics was readily accommodated by the miasmal theory: certain people -- those who lived in areas where the atmosphere was manifestly contaminated and who led a filthy and unwholesome way of life -- were "predisposed" to be afflicted.
That issue of the magazine also included a terrific piece about Noah Webster (Mr. Dictionary) by Jill Lepore. Speaking of our president, how's this for the-more-things-change...?
By the time Webster's massive, two-volume "American Dictionary of the American Language" was printed, in 1828, the Federalist Party was dead. So was almost everyone Webster had known in his youth, or even his middle age. Republicans from Virginia -- Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe -- had run the country for a quarter century. Republicanism was so ascendant that Andrew Jackson, who was not only a champion of the common man but also a notoriously bad speller (he spelled "government" with one "n"), had just been elected to President.


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