Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/August 1888/Injurious Influences of City Life

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By WALTER B. PLATT, M. D., F. R. C. S. (Eng.).

WE do not intend to discuss in this paper the subjects of bad ventilation and impure air, imperfect drainage, damp cellars, or insufficient nourishment. Residents of the country may suffer from all these as well as dwellers in cities. There are, however, certain injurious influences more insidious in their operation, which are peculiar to cities, and affect the well-to-do as well as the poor, although not in equal degree. I believe these lead, sooner or later, to degeneration of the individual and his offspring, by producing progressive feebleness, and to ultimate extinction of such families as are long subjected to their force. I refer to those which chiefly affect the stability of the nervous system, rendering it less capable of sustained work, and, in a secondary way, only the circulation and general nutrition. The end-result of all these influences is to lessen the producing power of each man, and thus to depreciate his value as an economic factor. They ought not to exist if their removal be possible, and if it can be effected without greater expense than their ill effects warrant. Their cause is to be found in faulty municipal arrangements which can be largely corrected by intelligent action and supervision. They work by producing insomnia, aberrant forms of mental action, singling out those who are less strong as subjects of the so-called neurasthenia.

These effects accumulate with each successive generation subjected to their influence, until the final inheritor finds the load too heavy to bear and do any useful work. The ne'er-do-wells and idlers are often, not always, such, from actual inability for persistent effort. Let us see if such influences exist, if they are injurious to any considerable extent, and if it is practicable to remove or modify them.

We refer chiefly to three, and these are: 1. Disuse of the upper extremities for any considerable muscular exertion. 2. The incessant noise of a large city. 3. Jarring of the brain and spinal cord by continual treading upon the stone and brick pavements which make our sidewalks and streets.

We leave out of the question those to whom these observations do not apply—viz., such as are able to spend nearly half the year out of town. Experience has shown that such individuals and families suffer in small degree from an ordinary city life; while, on the other hand, good authorities assert that there are very few families now living in London who, with their predecessors, have resided there continuously for three generations.

If there is one general physical difference between the country-bred and the city-bred man, it lies in the size and strength of the muscles of the shoulder and arm. It is almost impossible for a man to live in the country without using the arms far more than the average city man. This use of the arms has, in both men and women, an important bearing on the general health, since it increases the capacity of the chest, and thereby the surface of lung tissue where the blood is spread out in thin-walled vessels through which the oxygen and carbonic acid easily pass in opposite directions, serving thus the double purpose of feeding the body more abundantly and of removing a constantly accumulating waste product.

This richer blood is again driven with greater force by increased heart and arterial action through its circuit. The vital organs are better nourished and the power to produce work is increased.

Few will deny that a well-nourished body can be trained to do more and better mental work than the same organism in a feebler state. Walking on an even surface, the only variety of physical exercise which most business and professional men get in town, is well known to be a poor substitute for arm-exertion. The reason is partially plain, since walking is almost automatic and involuntary. The walking mechanism is set in motion as we would turn an hour-glass, and requires little attention, much less volition and separate discharges of force from the brain-surface with each muscular contraction, as is the case with the great majority of arm-movements.

The arm-user is a higher animal than the leg-user. Arm-motions are more nearly associated with mental action than leg movements. A man's lower limbs merely carry his higher centers to his food or work. The latter must be executed with his arms and hands.

A third way in which arm-exercise benefits the organism is through, the nervous system. Whether this is due to an increased supply of richer, purer blood, or whether the continual discharge of motor impulses in some way stores up another variety of force, we do not know. One thing is certain, the victim of neurasthenia is very seldom an individual who daily uses his arms for muscular work; with this, the limit of hurtful mental work is seldom reached.

It seems evident that arm rather than leg movements are essential to increased productive power. If these are neglected, the man as a social factor degenerates and falls a prey to his stronger fellow-man in the race for supremacy and productiveness. It may be remarked that American gout, that condition of the blood which causes our English cousins pain in their feet, and Americans universal pains and increased irritability, has one sovereign remedy so simple that few will take it, and this is daily systematic arm-exercise. It is Nature's sedative, for which she charges nothing the next day, but gives us sleep instead of insomnia, and cheerfulness in place of discontent. A man may walk in an hour four miles, on a city sidewalk, and reach his desk tired, exhausted of force, and better only for the open air and a slight increase of the circulation. Had he spent half that time in a well-ordered gymnasium, using chest and rowing-weights, and, after a sponge-bath, if he had gone by rapid transit to his office, he would have found his work of a very different color, easier to do, and taking less time to perform it. The view for some time held by Hartwell, of the Johns Hopkins University, Sargent, of Harvard, and others, that arm-exercise prevents or does away with nervous irritability, and at the same time increases the absolute capacity for mental work, has not been sufficiently urged or accepted.

The remedy for this state of things is to cause every man and woman to realize the importance of arm-exercise. Make it compulsory in schools, and popular after leaving school. If one's occupation does not require it in itself, muscular exertion of some kind ought to be taken daily, with the same regularity as food and sleep, for all three are necessary to the fullest development of our powers.

A second injurious influence, which pertains exclusively to city life, is incessant noise. This may not be very intense at any time, but, when continuous, it acts as certainly upon the nervous system as water falling upon a harder or softer stone. Recent experiments upon animals subjected to the sound of a continuously vibrating tuning-fork for a number of hours, one or two days in all, show that the first effect is that of an irritant to the nerve-centers, as certainly as an acid or an electric shock is to muscle-fiber. A secondary visible effect is opacity of the crystalline lens of the eye.

The noise of a city is at first painful and confusing to one unaccustomed to it. We do not maintain that a really bad effect is at once apparent upon most individuals. When people are subjected to such a variety of influences, it is difficult to isolate and measure the result of one. Not infrequently a change from a noisy to a quieter part of the town is most beneficial to especially sensitive individuals. Much noise is unnecessary to the performance of most useful work. It means waste, wear and tear in the majority of cases.

The most perfect are the most noiseless machines, and this applies to the social organism as well. The rattle of badly built wagons over poor pavements, the ringing of milkmen's bells, or the jangling of those on street-cars, street cries, and the like, have long been recognized as evils in European cities, and suppressed in many places. In certain streets in Berlin heavily laden carts and wagons are never allowed, and in others only when the horses walk. In Munich the street-cars have no bells. Recently in New York a measure has been under favorable consideration to abolish the ringing of milkmen's bells, and to have those on street-cars taken off. The immense relief to the residents of a street in Baltimore, where the cars run every three minutes in each direction, when the bells were omitted for several weeks on account of sickness in that street, will not soon be forgotten.

Every one will instinctively call to mind boiler-makers and workers in factories as instances where men work for years in incessant din without injury. These are instances like those of pearl-divers and miners, and show rather what can be endured by some than what is best for most. On the other hand, we have all known individuals in whom slight noises cause absolute pain. The blowing of locomotive and factory-whistles within city limits has been abolished in some of our largest municipalities. The loud ringing of church-bells at all hours of the day and night, in this age, when every one knows the hour of prayer, hardly recommends the religion of good-will to men. All these unnecessary noises add more weight to the overtaxed nervous systems of many men and women who can not escape them. It is certain that with the increasing intensity of city life, and its consequent strain, such things must be lessened, as far as compatible with business interests. Suitably enforced municipal regulations can do this. Elevated railroads should not be permitted in streets where men and women live, underground roads should take their place where it is possible. Certain streets, or blocks at least, should be reserved for business purposes, others for dwellings alone, and heavy wagons allowed only in the first named, unless they are to leave their freight in the block. Rattling irons and chains should not be allowed. Pavements should be thoroughly laid and then kept in repair. Londoners find asphalt the best pavement for all but the very heaviest traffic, in spite of its being very slippery in wet weather. The advantages far outweigh this one disadvantage. Horses can draw much heavier loads than on Belgian block, with less noise, while they are the cleanest pavements known. Those called asphalt pavements in America are a poor imitation of what our English brethren enjoy. Intelligent, honest city government, in a word, will give us health as well as increased business facilities.

Jarring is an equally hurtful influence of city life that has not received the attention it deserves. Combined with the two preceding, it completes a formidable trio. Very few realize the fact that we who were designed to tread upon soft Mother Earth have become a race of dwellers upon rocks and stones. In walking, the jar of the fall of our one hundred and fifty pounds comes entirely upon the heel, since it first strikes the ground. The ball of the foot and the instep serve only to raise us for another downfall—small, it is true, but equal to the weight of our bodies falling through one half to one inch in a little less than one second. This shock would be sudden and unbearable but for the arrangement of the bones, muscles, and ligaments of the lower limb. The chief elastic distributing springs are the mass of muscles on the front of the thigh and that on the front of the leg. These deaden the shock much as two great India-rubber bands. The ankle and hip joints help but little, while the curves of the spine and the disks of cartilage between the vertebrae aid a great deal in lessening the impact of the body with the ground.

This shock in ordinary walking is less than if the body be raised one half or three quarters of an inch on the toes, and then suddenly let fall upon the heels, since the limb which is put forward is somewhat like the spoke of a wheel, if we imagine a wheel consisting of an axle and spokes alone. The brain bears almost the same relation to its containing bony case, the skull, that the ball does to the cup, in the old-fashioned cup-and-ball, where the ball is tossed into the air and caught in its cup with a sharp shock.

If any one doubts that there is a distinct and decided jar of the brain with each step, let him walk a hundred yards when the brain is slightly over-sensitive from a bad cold or headache, and he will observe the pain each step causes. Or, more scientifically, let him place (as I did recently) a pedometer inside his hat, and it will register every time his heel strikes the ground.

Fortunately the brain, in health, does not perceive these slight jars to its own substance, and interpret them as pain. Nature provides one more anatomical precaution against jarring by slinging up the brain in its spherical hammock, the dura mater. Now, in many people, the ill effect of these thousands of slight daily concussions accumulate, and after a time concur with other causes in producing that state of disability called nervous exhaustion. An observant man may see on one side of any stone or brick sidewalk in the city wherever there is soft ground near by, a well-worn path which will be instinctively chosen by pedestrians. If we test ourselves we shall find the chief reason of our choice is because it jars us less to walk there than upon stones and bricks.

Most healthy men endure these concussions for a long time without very serious effects, while others who suffer from them are entirely restored by enforced rest, provided the circulation be at the same time maintained. It is not improbable that some of the long cobweb-like processes of the nerve-cells are damaged by being shaken for months and years over city pavements.

Statistics upon such a matter are almost out of the question where insufficient exercise, noise, and jarring of the nerve-centers combine with other influences to overthrow the individual or to lessen his productive powers.

If it be then injurious to some to walk daily for years upon stones and bricks, and less so upon earth or softer material, this can be remedied in two ways. First, by changing the material of our sidewalks to a more elastic one. Something is needed for pedestrians which will be durable, yet not hard. Some of the varieties of asphalt composition are elastic, but none of them sufficiently durable, as far as I know.

Nature suggests a remedy in a second way, in the covering of the human heel itself where we find a very elastic pad one half an inch thick, to lessen the jar of walking. If we replace the perfectly hard boot-heel by an elastic India-rubber one, we provide an inexpensive and practical remedy, which it would cost the wearer but a few cents a month to keep in repair. This cover has the additional advantage of lessening the noise of hurrying feet, and preventing broken bones in the winter season. If now our city authorities will, at some future time, provide gymnasia as well as libraries and parks, make our large towns quiet as well as clean, and give us sidewalks more like Mother Earth, we believe such a favored community will produce more, and lead collectively a happier life, than most of our modern towns.

Arguments in behalf of Sunday observance, based upon grounds of religion or custom, or even upon the desire of certain classes of people to have one day of quiet, are not usually effective with those to whom they need to be addressed, for they care but little for these things. It may be a more potent argument that the conversion of Sunday into a day of pleasure is likely to injure those who work hard during the week, by forcing or tempting them to work on Sunday as well. There is no doubt as to the increase of Sunday labor during recent years, and it is very largely attributable to the increase of Sunday amusements.