THE “GOOD” OLD DAYS? Disease, Despair, and Dying Young

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THE “GOOD” OLD DAYS? Disease, Despair, and Dying Young and our health history.

What about the reality of the “good old days”? In this chapter, we’ll review the health history of those days and demonstrate that health in times past may not have been as good as we imagine.

Indeed, the image of health in the “good old days” is usually ignored, often idealized in historical representations in books, movies, and television. Because of this, many people imagine that generations in prior history were fortunate, experiencing little disease; clean air and water; and lots of good, wholesome food. With this comes a sense that hygiene and cleanliness practices in the “good old days” were sufficient and would be protective in our daily lives today.

Since few of us experienced those days, we depend on historical records, which can be manipulated and misinterpreted. Moreover, many people have different perceptions about what constitutes a historical record. Many of our impressions about the past are based on images created in movies and historical novels, not on data. We identify with royal heroes, aristocratic heroines, dashing adventurers, dramatic events, and happy endings. But rarely do movies and novels describe the ugliness of smallpox, the pathos of infant diarrhea, and the rotting piles of waste. They hardly deal with the daily struggle and misery of the common people, nor the filth, disease, and suffering that they experienced. Let’s look at the historical record and see what those “good old days” were really like . . .

Filth and Waste

We know that the ancient Romans developed sewers and public baths, the Greeks were concerned with physical beauty, clean skin, and healthy diets, and the Talmud (ca. 2,000 BC) promoted physical cleanliness as a prerequisite to physical and spiritual health. But Europe during the Middle Ages went a thousand years without a bath, and sanitation was as foreign as the toga! By the 19th century in Early Roman bathtub (ca. fourth – first century BC) Europe, the public sanitation practices and aims of ancient Greece and Rome had been lost.

Some insights into the causes behind this development come from John Simon, who claimed that the sanitary practices of the Romans and Greeks were in direct conflict with the monastic and ascetic values of early Christianity.1 The fathers of the early church equated bodily cleanliness with the luxuries, materialism, and paganism of Rome. Their impulse toward an austere spiritual life actually encouraged physical neglect and lack of good personal hygiene.

However, during one period in post-Roman history, baths were built in connection with churches to accommodate pilgrims before they entered the sanctuaries. It's been speculated that these baths were eventually abandoned due to a lack of water supply.2 In addition, medieval literature refers to handwashing being a common practice before and after meals.3


Even the children in Western Europe, including those of the well-to-do, were not bathed. Although within their means, a deliberate belief in bodily filth was pervasive among the wealthy. Note the records of Louis XIII whose legs were washed for the first time at the age of five and bathed for the first time at age seven.4

The years right up to the first half of the 1800s were years of filth, poverty, and disease in Europe and the U.S. And, a major component of the filth was human and animal fecal matter.

Edwin Chadwick reports many examples of unsanitary conditions in 1842 England:5

 “At Inverness there are very few houses in town which can boast of either water closet or privy, and only two or three public privies in the better part of the place exist for the great bulk of the inhabitants.”

 “At Gateshead the want of convenient offices in the neighborhood is attended with many very unpleasant circumstances, as it induces the lazy inmates to make use of chamber utensils, which are suffered to remain in the most offensive state for several days and are then emptied out of the windows.”

 “In London . . . I found the whole area of the cellars of both houses were full of night soil, to the depth of three feet, which had been permitted for years to accumulate from the overflow of the cesspools; upon being moved, the stench was intolerable, and no doubt the neighborhood must have been more or less infected by it.”

 “In Glasgow . . . we entered a dirty low passage like a house door . . . to a square court . . . occupied entirely as a dung receptacle of the most disgusting kind. Beyond this court the second passage led to a second square court, occupied in the same way by its dunghill; and from this court was yet a third passage leading to a third court and a third dung heap. There were no privies or drains there, and the dung heaps received all filth which the swarm of wretched inhabitants could give . . .”

 “At Greenock, a dunghill in one street . . . contains a hundred cubic yards of impure filth, collected from all parts of town. It is never removed . . . it is enclosed in front by a wall; the height of the wall is about 12 feet, and the dung overtops it; the malarious moisture oozes through the wall, and runs over the pavement.”

In the early part of the 1800s, the U.S. fared no better. Both rural and city dwellers lived in a world of filth. Animal wastes were everywhere on farms, causing boots and clothing to be covered by manure.

City streets were used for disposal of food wastes and dishwater, as well as being covered with horse manure. In most cities, free-roaming animals, often pigs, scavenged the garbage, which kept the streets freer of garbage but spread animal waste. Boston is known as an exception, where scavengers and manure collectors kept the streets cleaner than other cities. Regardless, citizens of U.S. cities of this period were exposed to foul odors from rotting trash and dead animals, as well as human waste.6

New York, as recently as 1865, was described thusly:7

 “Domestic garbage and filth of every kind is thrown into the streets, covering their surface, filling the gutters, obstructing the sewer culverts, and sending forth perennial emanations which must generate pestiferous disease. In winter, the filth and garbage, etc., accumulate in the streets to the depth sometimes of two or three feet.”

 “In the sixteenth ward, the privies form one of the chief features of insalubrity. Nearly all of them are too small in size and too few in numbers and without ventilation or seat covers. About twelve were found filled to the floor timbers or within one foot of them.”

Obviously, unsanitary conditions are not pleasant to discuss. In fact, it’s usually avoided or masked by such euphemisms as “soil” or “organic waste.” Even in our enlightened age — when there are no limits to topics or restrictions on words — we never defecate. Instead, we “go to the bathroom.” Imagine how difficult it was to talk about such things in Victorian times when syphilis couldn’t be mentioned and human anatomy was a dirty subject!

Obviously, unsanitary conditions are not pleasant to discuss. In fact, it’s usually avoided or masked by such euphemisms as “soil” or “organic waste.” Even in our enlightened age — when there are no limits to topics or restrictions on words — we never defecate. Instead, we “go to the bathroom.” Imagine how difficult it was to talk about such things in Victorian times when syphilis couldn’t be mentioned and human anatomy was a dirty subject!

Japan: Mid-1600’s to Mid-1800’s8

Sanitation in Japan from the mid-1600s to mid-1800s contrasted sharply with that in the U.S. and Europe. Human waste was an economic commodity in Japan for use in fertilizing crops, and therefore was carefully collected and managed in cities. And many cities of Japan were as large as or larger then European cities. For example, in the city that eventually became Tokyo (the largest city in the world by 1700), the collection of human waste kept it from streets and out of waste piles and cesspools, preventing people from coming in contact with it. Also, since sewage was not flushed into rivers in Japan, the contamination of rivers that served as water supplies, which became common in Europe, occurred on a much smaller scale in Japan, thereby reducing this factor as a source of infection outbreaks.

China: 11th Century9

 Reports of life in Hangchow, China in the 11th century indicate that the streets of the city were periodically cleaned by the public authorities and the trash hauled away by boat as a means to control epidemics. While cesspools were used by the rich, the poorer population relied on commercial scavengers for the daily collection of human waste for use as fertilizer.

The Age of Epidemics

In history, it appears that disease and death were so common that only the dramatic plagues and pestilences made an impression on the early writers. This might be the first lesson about our past:

 From time immemorial until well into the 19th century, infectious disease epidemics exacted their toll from everyone in every nation — rich and poor, saint and sinner, and city dweller and farmer.

 The sporadic nature and inevitability of such epidemics are shown in Figures 1-1 and 1-2. Figure 1-1 presents the numbers of burials and christenings from the church records of a typical London parish in the 16th and 17th centuries; Figure 1-2 shows the crude death rates in four American cities 300 years later. The data in the two graphs are not really comparable, but they do document one of the most important health realities of our past — epidemics of infectious disease.

In a way, these charts can be misleading. They emphasize the epidemic peaks and imply that between epidemics, health problems subsided to reasonable and acceptable levels. However, students of epidemiology and those familiar with current vital statistics would be appalled at the baselines to which mortality rates return between the dramatic outbreaks.  This is the second important lesson we learn from health history.  In these days even "good" years when there were standards.

A description of New York in the 1800s illustrates the impact of disease:10

 “Smallpox, scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria were domestic pestilences with which the people were so familiar that they regarded them as necessary features of childhood. Malarial fevers . . . were regularly announced in the autumnal months as having appeared with their ‘usual severity’! The white plague or consumption was the common inheritance of the poor and rich. With the immigrant came typhus and typhoid fevers, which relentlessly swept through the tenement houses. At intervals, Asiatic cholera swooped down upon the city with fatal energy and gathered its enormous harvest of dead. Even ‘yellow fever,’ the great pestilence of the tropics, made occasional incursions . . . Failure to improve the unhealthy conditions of the city, and the tendency to aggravate them by a large increase of the tenement house population, offensive trades, accumulation of domestic waste, and the filth of the streets, stables and privy pits, then universal, caused an enormous sacrifice of life, especially among children.”

The calculation of mortality rates and their interpretation is a science in its own right.11 There are many subtleties and pitfalls involved, particularly when one wants to translate the results into accurate conclusions about causality and trends. Prior to 1800, most health information was anecdotal, and it wasn’t much better than today’s movies at describing the true health status of the community. Fortunately, since 1800, the data for Europe and the U.S. have become more reliable. Lemuel Shattuck and Edwin Chadwick published reports, governments started gathering vital statistics, and the denominators and numerators became more consistent.5, 12, 13, 14

From these sources, we gain a frightening picture of European health status. For example, Figure 1-3 summarizes the average age of death among different social classes in England around 1840. The conclusion from these data is the picture alluded to previously: Continual disease and early death was interrupted only by dramatic epidemics, which brought many to their deaths in a short time. It’s a world enslaved by pestilence. Even the children who survived the hazards of childbirth — unless they were born with silver spoons in their mouths — might have to live in a hurry, since the average age of death could be somewhere in the late teens or early twenties.

Death, of course, was not the only feature of this history. Infectious diseases, violence, and traumatic accidents that didn’t kill exhausted the productivity and quality of life of the survivors. For every recorded death, 20 to 30 persons became ill and weak, and they suffered.12 This was the situation in the early 1800s in most of Western Europe and the U.S. when a new era known as the “health revolution” led to great changes in health.

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