Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/June 1891/Our Grandfathers Died Too Young

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THE chronic pessimist, who is convinced that all true wisdom died long ago with some old moldering ancestor, and who believes that the world and all its arrangements are daily waxing worse and worse, is frankly warned to skip this article, for he will find nothing in it to sustain his cheerless and pestilent views, nor to comfort his grumbling and disagreeable soul.

All students of vital statistics are now thoroughly agreed as to the actual lengthening of the average period of human life, and facts will be adduced to show on what their faith is grounded; and an attempt will be made to point out the many and encouraging factors that have helped to achieve the result.

In discussing so lofty a topic as the steady lengthening of human life in all civilized countries in these later times—properly rated as the highest earthly interest—it is almost humiliating to learn that the earliest revelation of the cheerful fact came through a thrill in the pocket-nerve.

In England, at the close of the first quarter of this century, it began to be perceived that the Government was losing money in paying its annuities calculated on the same basis as those that had been sold in the last century. These annuities may be briefly described as the paying of a certain annual sum for a number of years calculated on the probable number of years the annuitant may live, in return for a "lump sum" given by him to the Government. Several such series of annuities had been issued by the Government when in dire distress for funds, and found highly profitable; but now it became apparent that the Government was losing money, and a searching incpiiry by authorized experts, plainly showed that the men who were receiving the annuities were living too long—a state of things that demanded reform; and, as wholesale murder could not be indulged in, the problem was attacked from the other side, and by a more extended and careful set of investigations an equitable basis for the issuance of future annuities was found. At this time it was clearly shown that the duration of life in 1725 compared to that in 1825 was as three in the former to four in the later time.

We, who are born into this age of tabulated statistics, can form but a feeble notion of the slender grounds on which those misleading annuities were founded. True, more than five hundred years b. c. the Romans had begun a register of citizens, including sex and the dates of birth and death, which was continued for a thousand years; and, from a study of it, the average period of human life was computed at thirty years. There are no life-tables at all reliable now that are over fifty years old. The first English census worthy of the name was taken in 1851; but it is a curious and valuable circumstance that while Geneva in Switzerland was undergoing the inevitable ferment caused by the presence of such an agitator as John Calvin, she did, in 1551—just three centuries ahead of England—set up such a recording and tabulation of her citizens as makes the records invaluable as a means of comparison, and shows that, from a death-rate of forty in the thousand previous to 1G00, it had fallen before 1800 to twenty-nine in the thousand, and there has been a steady decrease since; so that the average of human life in that city was computed fifty years ago at more than forty-five years—a gain of one half over the Roman average.

France also set herself at the problem of life-values. Baron Delessert—the founder of the Philanthropic Society of Paris—found that the annual death-rate in that city during the age of chivalry—the fourteenth century—was one in sixteen; during the seventeenth, one in twenty-six; and in 1824, one in thirty-two. Taking all of France together, the deaths during 1781 were one in twenty-nine; but in the five years preceding 1829 they were one in thirty-nine. Thus the value of life in France had nearly doubled since "the good old times."

It was next found that, in the prisons of England, which were already experiencing the good effects of greater cleanliness, better food, and other reforms, introduced through the efforts of Howard and his coadjutors, the health of the prisoners was so much benefited and their lives so much prolonged that, as Mr. Beecher said "people might sigh for a location in some good salubrious prison." So great were the advances on all sides, that Sir Edwin Chadwick, the father of sanitation, so far as it can be defined (Steps to abolish Disease and to defer Death), became persuaded that there is a potential longevity in men of one hundred years, and that death at a period less than that should be counted premature. He was born in 1800 and died July 5, 1890; and if it is true, as many statisticians assert, that the period of human life has lengthened nine years since this century began, we can see that his belief was not altogether the dream of an enthusiast; for, in spite of the great advances made in the science of sanitation, and in the art of living so as to insure the highest health, he felt that only a beginning had been made, and that the coming century is to be the one in which the seeds planted in this are to attain their growth and bear their full fruitage.

In seeking the reasons for this advance, they all might be summed up in the one great sweeping fact of the mastery of man over the forces of Nature, through the grand scientific triumphs that began with the discovery of oxygen in 1774, and the control of steam and electricity obtained a little later. When we come to details, we find the first great universal factor is the better supplies of food, produced in greater quantities and with less labor than formerly through the intelligent application of agricultural chemistry, and the use of the marvelous myriads of agricultural machines, which stand for armies of laborers, who don't get tired and don't eat. When a Montana farmer can grow on one prize acre nine hundred and seventy-four bushels of good potatoes, the disciples of Malthus even can take heart, for Mr. Edward Atkinson has conclusively demonstrated that the food-producing areas of this country have as yet only been scratched over and worked at one corner. In Queen Elizabeth's time a statistical writer says that in London the deaths from starvation were not more than one in a thousand. At that rate the deaths in London now would be twelve hundred and fifty annually, while the fact is that the few deaths from that cause now are from suicidal mania and obstinate refusal to make application for the relief provided for the destitute. Linked with the foregoing is the rapid intercommunication of nations and the speedy transportation which has practically put an end to the great famines which formerly destroyed millions in Europe and Asia, and paved the way for "plagues" in reducing the vitality of the inhabitants. A wellto-do American laborer can to-day command a more wholesome variety of nutritious food than could the lord of the middle ages.

Next, the invention of machinery has so increased the supplies of clothing, and increased intercommunication has so aided in its distribution, that the protection and comfort of mankind have been immeasurably enhanced, while a better knowledge of the hygiene of clothing has prolonged many a life. The single item of waterproof garments and rubber shoes has saved so many lives that the philanthropist ought to rejoice that just as the cry began to go up, "The Brazilian forests are becoming exhausted," Stanley opened up boundless stores of rubber in Africa.

The next great and widely operating cause of lengthened life has been the extensive application of drainage-works, undertaken primarily to give a higher agricultural value to land, but incidentally causing an abatement in fever and ague and all other types of malarial disease, and also greatly lessening the cases of consumption—as damp soil is now recognized as the great predisposing cause of lung diseases. In Birmingham, England, where the drainage was good, the deaths were one in forty, in spite of many insalubrious manufactories; while in Liverpool, where an undrained soil counteracted many sanitary advantages, they were one in thirty-one. By the drainage of the Bay Ridge district of Long Island, under an intelligent and judicious commission, not only were malarious swamps changed into fertile corn-fields, but the druggists testified that they sold one quarter only of the quinine used before, and the resident physicians that there was a cessation of chills and fever and all types of intermittent and remittent fever. It should be noted, in passing, that all the landowners joined; one obstinate obstructionist can nullify the good intentions of a multitude of right-minded men.

We now begin to come upon the widely operating reforms consequent on the investigations and recommendations of sanitarians; the first and greatest of which is the supply to multitudes of communities of pure water; sometimes tapping an uncontaminated supply by a pipe, and sometimes going below the element of danger by an artesian well or other method of securing protected water and thereby saving thousands from attacks of typhoid and fatal diarrhœal diseases. It is beginning to be learned that constantly drinking impure water creates a lowered vitality as much as breathing a vitiated air, and that either one helps to supply ready-made victims for any of the epidemic diseases.

The next great sanitary reform has been a knowledge of the true principles of ventilation. The need of pure air—air that has not previously been breathed by another person is by no means as well understood as could be wished, but enlightenment is surely making its way, and ancient evils are vanishing before it. A whole article would be insufficient to show how knowledge on this subject, not understood in its rudiments fifty years ago, has advanced. Typhus, or ship fever, a disease most easily and directly communicable from person to person, is now known, when it arises spontaneously, to be the fruit of rebreathed air. It formed the "plagues" of the earlier centuries; there are still spots in London—infected houses—from which typhus is never absent, and in 1839 five per cent of the tailors of London died of it; it is to get rid of it, in large measure, that the wholesale demolition of London "rookeries" is at this moment going on. When men ceased to weave in their own unventilated hovels, and were gathered together in high, airy, light factory rooms, it was very soon seen that the number of consumptives, hunchbacks, and bowlegged diminished—an unanswerable testimony to the value of light and air in saving and prolonging lives. When it was shown that the annual death-rate from preventable typhus, which attacked persons in the vigor of life, was double that of the allied armies at Waterloo, England began to suspect that there was a commercial value to a man's life, and enacted laws for its protection; indeed, public sentiment on this matter has become so educated that no employer would dare to crowd eighty workmen into a space where the "cubic feet of air" to each was less than one hundred feet—less than one tenth of that required for healthful breathing. The reduction of the deaths of children in a single hospital, by having it well ventilated, from 2,944 out of a total of 7,050 down to 279, convinced the most stolid conservative that "there was something in it." It seems to an intelligent person of to-day as if everybody, everywhere, and all the time had understood the importance of pure air; but when it is remembered that the constitution of the atmosphere has been known only a little more than a hundred years, and the vital relations of oxygen to the human blood for a much shorter period, it will be seen that the idea is wide of the fact.

Systematic sanitation began in England about fifty years ago; in America about twenty—the first State Board of Health made its first report in 1870; but thoroughly informed persons declare that among our more plastic populations, where ideas do not encounter so many vested abuses and prejudices, they have made such rapid headway that we are already abreast of the most advanced sanitary thought of Europe; some of the new Western towns have sprung, like Minerva, in full completeness, from their creators, with entire equipment of pure water-supply, perfect drainage, electric lights, and houses built on the most healthful models.

The site of the dwelling has become an object of prime importance, and public opinion has forbidden the use of swamps as a fit place to locate the homes of artisans and laborers. The better construction of tenement-houses under the eye of vigilant sanitary inspectors has produced a truly marvelously diminished death-rate. In the mud hovels of Ireland—cabins of only one room—the average continuance of life was twenty-six and a half years, when in the rural cottages of English agricultural laborers it was from fifty to fifty-six. In the model homes for laborers that have been built within the last twenty years in London, the death-rate has been brought down lower than in the best parts of rural England. Chadwick says that houses in the wynds of Glasgow were in a worse condition than the most loathsome prisons Howard visited, with a death-rate of forty-two in the thousand; sanitation has brought it down to twenty-eight, and in corresponding quarters in London it has been brought down to seventeen or eighteen, and the rebuilding of the fifteen acres adjacent to Bethnal Green will reduce it still further.

House-drainage—synonymous with properly constructed plumbing—has justly engaged a large share of attention from the sanitarian. By thorough attention to it (her sewers and water-supply were right before) Boston has reduced her death-rate from thirty-one to twenty. Croydon, England, which had a death-rate of twenty-eight, has brought it down to thirteen. These are only specimens of what has become an almost universal movement among intelligent communities.

The next life-saving advance is the superior ease of warming our houses—made possible by the improved locomotion that brings the wealth of the coal-mines to our doors and enables us to maintain a steady fire from fall to spring, that diffuses a gentle warmth all over the house, and forestalls all possibility of "taking a chill" while waiting for the fire to kindle. Even the friction-match comes in for its share of the prolonging of life. Doubtless many a fatal pneumonia and pleurisy has been contracted when the luckless householder's fire had died out overnight, and he was struggling with flint, steel, and tinder-box. It is only half a century since the indispensable friction-match came into general use.

The comfort of the warmed, luxuriously furnished, storm-defying railroad-car, contrasted with the exposure and discomfort of the stage-coach, needs but to be alluded to.

Another factor that has contributed largely, no doubt, to the diminution of mortality is the cessation of intramural interments and the establishment of cemeteries—often justly described as "rural"—removed from the busy centers of population. There are no statistics on which to found a comparison, but the known chemical products of mortal decay, and the known porosity of the earth, are of themselves enough to convince the thinking man of the expediency of removing graveyards from the abodes of the living; and here and there among the annals of sanitation are instances of sickness and death that can be traced directly to their baneful proximity.

We next come to what may be called the medical and physiological ameliorations of the woes of humanity. Thousands and thousands of lives are now saved annually in the hospitals, refuges, homes, etc., provided by Christian charity, which have mostly come into being within the last century. Multitudes of lives have been saved by antiseptic surgery alone. The hospitals have afforded such facilities for the study of disease that a partial mastery has been gained over many, especially those known to be contagious, so that when an outbreak of one of these occurs it is soon confined to the smallest possible area; isolation and disinfection do much, and the private burial of persons so dying helps to limit the mischief. Of what may be called the medical control of disease, vaccination surpasses all others in its benefits. The deaths in London alone from small-pox during the last century fell but a trifle short of two hundred thousand, and so common was it that Macaulay says a person without a pitted face was the exception; while the numbers rendered blind, deaf, and hideous as well as wretched by it are pitiful to think of. In New York, in 1878, in a population of eleven hundred thousand, there were but fourteen cases, thanks to vaccination; and in the German army, where vaccination is compulsory and also revaccination at stated periods, the disease has been effectually eradicated. Anti-vaccination cranks are specially invited to read the above.

Sanitation, which works so beneficently among civilians, soon gets itself applied in the army and navy. The navies of the world furnish striking examples of the prolonging of life, and, as careful records are kept in them, it doesn't remain an ambiguous quantity. Discipline can enforce cleanliness both of the man and the ship, and a good example set in the ships of one country is soon followed in those of another. The production of pure distilled water on shipboard has done much to abolish alimentary diseases among sailors, and the power of vegetables and lime-juice to defend them from scurvy appeals to the selfishness of the ship-owners, though redounding to the long life of Jack. Dampness is one of man's mortal foes, and when it is aggravated by heat it becomes ten times worse. Damp heat between decks aggravates yellow fever and is the great cause of disease in the tropics. Formerly every day saw the decks washed down, but this operation is now left to the discretion of the commanding officer. The wisdom of this arrangement is apparent from the following record of Captain Murray, commander of H. B. M.'s ship Valorous: "In 1823, after two years' service amid the icebergs of Labrador, his ship was ordered to sail immediately for the West Indies. . . . He proceeded to the station with a crew of one hundred and fifty men, visited almost every island in the West Indies and many of the ports in the Gulf of Mexico; and, notwithstanding the transition from extreme climates, returned to England without the loss of a single man." He adds that "every precaution was used, by lighting stoves between decks and scrubbing the decks themselves with hot sand, to insure the most thorough dryness." He had learned "how to do it." When in command of the Recruit, off Vera Cruz, he lost no men, while the other ships anchored around him lost from twenty to fifty each, and constant communication was kept up, and all were exposed to the same climatic influences. Not a case of sickness even occurred on his ship. Where he said "dryness of the ship," read dryness of the house, and one great secret of household sanitation is learned. When the first emigrant ships went to Australia, one third of the passengers died and were buried in the sea; but, through the force of sanitation applied because the shippers were compelled to alter their terms, and were paid for those landed alive, the death-rate was soon made smaller than when the same persons were living ashore.

Through the experience gained in the Crimean War, and largely under the inspiration of Miss Nightingale, a systematic application of better methods began to be made, in the hope of diminishing the awful mortality in the Indian army, and the English were not slow to appropriate the garnered wisdom of other countries. In 1858 public attention was directed to what had been called the "British Juggernaut in India." It was shown that without war or famine a regiment of a thousand men dissolved away at the rate of one hundred and twenty-five a year, so that in eight years not a man of the original thousand remained. A sanitary commission was appointed, and they investigated among other things a series of distinguished preventive sanitary works, in the town of Bonfaric, in Algeria. It was found that the death rates had been reduced among the military from eighty to thirteen in the thousand; while the children, of whom it had been believed, as in India, that a third generation could not be raised, on account of the deadly nature of the climate, were as healthy as those in the most healthy towns of France.

Of course, sanitation under military authority can be very efficiently carried out, and every fruitful idea, whether from France or America, was acted on, with the result of reducing the death-rate for the decade preceding 1878 to less than twenty in the Indian army and twelve in the home army. In the entire British army—home, colonial, and Indian—the saving of lives in the decade under consideration was more than forty thousand.

Another great source of the lengthening of life is found in the steady advance in temperance. The ardent advocates of total abstinence may imagine this an unfounded claim, but there is not only a lessened consumption of intoxicants, but public sentiment has experienced a complete revolution since the first commission to inquire into the possibilities of improvement was appointed. The "six-bottle" and even the "one-bottle" man have gone out of fashion, and wise Christian philanthropists have learned that some bright, attractive coffee-room, or some other thing that meets the longing for social cheer, must take the place of "Joe's cozy corner" or the gin-palace. Education is beginning to tell in the same direction, and anon, there will be found interesting and elevating employment for men's idle hours to complete the cure. In England the opening of the museums and galleries and other places of intellectual culture on Sundays has been found to greatly wean men and women from the gin-palace and "public."

The sanitation of schools and the wiser care of infancy and childhood save annually thousands of "innocents." Irf the city of New York a man who has long been on the summer corps of extra doctors for the poor says that the very poor are becoming "educated up" by the distribution of leaflets and oral instruction till they really give more intelligent care to their children than the artisan class who hire their own doctors, and, being thought to know all they need to, are often left in dense ignorance.

Pew reflect on the saving of life through well-lighted streets and a well-organized police. In Queen Elizabeth's time, John Graunt, who studied the records of crime, boasts that not more than one in two thousand was murdered annually, because the guard of the city (London) was taken in turn by the citizens. At that rate the number of murders for the whole of the metropolis would be twenty-five hundred now, while the actual annual average is no more than twelve in the five million people guarded by the London police—a population almost equal to the whole of England and Wales in Elizabeth's time. No wonder that Hobbes wrote at that time of the life of man as "poor, nasty, brutish, and short"; and, although not all the reasons have been marshaled, it is equally no wonder that the thoughtful are beginning to protest against the literal meaning of "the days of our years are threescore years and ten."


Nature takes notice of a quaint custom, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, known as payment of "wrath silver," which was observed last year at Knightlow Hill, a tumulus between Rugby and Coventry, England. It consists of tribute payable by certain parishes in Warwickshire to the Duke of Buccleugh. The silver has to be deposited at daybreak in a hollow stone by representatives of the parishes, under penalty of the forfeiture of a white bull with a red nose and ears. The representatives afterward dined together at the duke's expense.