Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/November 1881/Physical Education XI




"Dangers we can not avoid we must learn to defy."—Lessing.

CREATURES in a state of nature can almost dispense with sanitary precautions; Providence has secured their safety in that respect. Animals are born with the instinct that enables them to distinguish wholesome from injurious plants. In the wilderness, where the neighborhood of man does not tempt them to brave the winter of the higher latitudes, most birds emigrate in time to avoid its rigors; those that stay can rely on their feather-coats; natural selection has adapted their utmost power of endurance to the possible extremes of the atmospheric vicissitudes. The sexual instinct of wild animals is limited to certain seasons and months that preclude the possibility of their young being born at any but the most favorable time of the year. From birth to death the children of Nature can trust themselves to the guidance of their hereditary inclinations; all the contingencies of their simple lives have been amply provided for.

These provisions do not apply exclusively to a state of affairs which the agency of man has in so many ways modified or even reversed; still, it would seem as if Nature had failed to make adequate allowance for the possibility of certain perils incident to our artificial mode of life. This fact is perhaps most strikingly illustrated by the treacherous non-repulsiveness of certain mineral poisons. The offensive taste of poisonous plants seems to be proportioned to the degree of their noxiousness; hemlock, strychnine, and opium are forbiddingly nauseous, even in the smallest quantities. A drop of prussic acid fills a whole room with its bitter aroma. But arsenious acid is tasteless and odorless, and so unsuspicious to the most wary animals that its name has become a synonym of ratsbane. The reason is apparently this: that Providence (or "natural selection") has endowed animals with a protective antipathy against all poisons they could possibly mistake for comestibles, but not against such out-of-the-way things as arsenic or sugar of lead, nor against the mixtures by which the art of man has disguised the taste of naturally unpalatable substances. Coffee, without sugar and milk, "straight and strong," as the Turks drink it, would hardly tempt a Christian schoolboy; mixed, it can be made seductive enough to deceive even the ex-officio opponents of the stimulant-habit. In such commixtures as milk-punch, beer-soup, "Scutari sherbet," the taste—though not the effect—of alcohol almost disappears; the Algeria trappers catch monkeys with a mélange of rum and manna-sirup. A famous cook of the "Frères Provençeaux" used to boast his ability of compounding delightful ragouts from meat in any state of decomposition. Early habits and the influence of evil examples also tend to corrupt the integrity of that physical conscience whose arbitrations form the health-code of our dumb fellow-creatures. In large cities the panders of vice vie in the art of making their poisons attractive, and, where such dangers can not be avoided, it is always the safest plan to meet and master them in time.

Early impressions are very enduring, and can make useful habits as well as evil ones a sort of second nature. In order to forestall the chief danger of in-door life, make your children love-sick after fresh air; make them associate the idea of fusty rooms with prison-life, punishment, and sickness. Open a window whenever they complain of headache or nausea; promise them a woodland excursion as a reward of exceptionally good behavior. Save your best sweetmeats for outdoor festivals. By the witchery of associated ideas a boy can come to regard the lonely shade-tree as a primary requisite to the enjoyment of a good story-book. "Or, mes pensées ne voulent jamais aller qu' avec mes jambes," says Rousseau ("Only the movement of my feet seems to set my brains a-going"), and it is just as easy to think, debate, rehearse, etc., walking as sitting; the peripatetic philosophers derived their name from their pedestrian proclivities, and the Stoic sect from their master's predilection for an open porch. Children who have been brought up in hygienic homes not rarely "feel as if they were going to be choked" in unventilated rooms, and I would take good care not to cure them of such salutary idiosyncrasies.

Every observant teacher must have noticed the innate hardiness of young boys, their unaffected indifference to wind and weather. They seem to take a delight in braving the extremes of temperature, and, by simply indulging this penchant of theirs, children can be made weather-proof to an almost unlimited degree; and in nothing else can they be more safely trusted to the guidance of their protective instincts. Don't be afraid that an active boy will hurt himself by voluntary exposure, unless his chances for out-door play are so rare as to tempt him to abuse the first opportunity. Weather-proof people are almost sickness-proof; a merry hunting-excursion to the snow-clad highlands will rarely fail to counteract the consequences of repeated surfeits; even girls who have learned to brave the winter storms of our Northwestern prairies will afterward laugh at "draughts" and "raw March winds." Winter is the season of lung-affections, the larger part of them induced by long confinement in a vitiated atmosphere; the part caused by light winter clothes is smaller than most people imagine. I have weathered a good many winters without fur caps and woolen shawls, and I ascribe my immunity to the circumstance that my guardian made it a rule never to force us to wear such things. The Moslems rarely eat before they have washed their hands, and a rather unscrupulous frontier Turk assured me that in his case the practice had nothing to do with superstition; it had become a physiological habit, whose omission, he had found, would produce a fit of very realistic nausea. In the same way more comprehensive ablutions may become a physiological necessity: there are people who owe their sound sleep and other sound things to their inability to go to bed without a sponge-bath. The habit can be formed in one summer.

The dietetic instincts of a rationally educated person should obviate the necessity of special precautions, but in large cities, where temptations walk in disguise, the welfare of inexperienced children may require additional safeguards. In the first chapter of this series I have enumerated the chief arguments of the vegetarian school. Among the incidental advantages of their system it might be mentioned that a purely vegetable diet is the most effectual precaution against a danger which only in one of its exceptional forms was lately brought home to us by the trichina panic. Flesh-eaters always run a risk of inoculating themselves with the germs of the various diseases which both beef-and man-flesh is heir to, consumption especially, and several disorders arising from the corruption of the humors, by the use of decayed or fermented food. Sausage-makers, like trance-mediums, never divulge their trade-secrets, but it is a suggestive fact that, in the Anglo-German cities of this continent, the scrofulous and decrepit old females of the bovine race are known by the name of Bologna cows. Abstinence from Wurst, boarding-house hash, and mince-pies, may diminish the danger, but abstinence from all animal food is the safer plan and the easier one. If children were restricted to a vegetable or semi-animal diet (milk, eggs, etc.), I doubt if many of them would afterward choose to overcome that instinctive repugnance to flesh-food expressed in the original meaning of the word frugality. The Romans of the Cincinnatian era, though entirely free from Buddhistic scruples, seem to have eschewed animal food for sanitary reasons. Children with a phthisical taint are certainly better off without it. Give them eggs and all the available vegetable fat they can digest, but no flesh nor milk of anyways doubtful origin. Two or three families of moderate means might rent a bit of pasture-land, and divide the milk of a healthy country cow. The sanitary condition of a single animal could be ascertained by any competent farrier, but the control of a wholesale meat-market will always be more or less perfunctory.

Principiis obsta is probably the wisest maxim ever expressed in two words, and I believe that the poison-problem will be ultimately solved on that principle. The work of reform must begin in the nursery; and, under circumstances where we can not keep temptations from our door, we must make our children temptation-proof, inspire them with an indelible abhorrence of drunkenness and poison-slavery of every kind.

"I still find the Laconic method the shortest," writes a friend of mine, alluding to the Spartan plan of warning boys by the example of a drunken Helot. He used to interest his boy in the modus operandi of alcohol, opium, etc., and then take him out, and, under some pretext or other, drop into a slum-saloon on Saturday night, or a police-court on Monday morning, to give him a practical illustration of his theory. Whenever they saw the poison displayed in an attractive form, on ornamental sign-boards or in the gorgeous bottles of druggists and hotel-keepers, they would study the well-baited trap with a peculiar interest, and go their way rejoicing, as in the possession of an invaluable secret. The result was that the boy became "aggressively virtuous," and used to button-hole visitors in order to lecture them on the causes and consequences of the popular delusion.

Even city boys do not often contract the nicotine habit till after their twelfth year, and a fit of tobacco-nausea before that time generally induces a forbidding reaction not easy to outgrow. I remember the case of a brutal tavern-keeper who tried to accustom his son to the fumes of Alsatian leaf-tobacco (vulgo Stinkewitz), and the unexpected result of his last experiment. He took the lad on a stage-coach trip from Colmar to Metz, and induced the postillion to take in a few extra passengers, whom he treated to clay pipes and Stinkewitz. He then closed the windows, and in less than twenty minutes his son turned deadly pale, and would have fainted if he had not found relief in a violent fit of retching. If he had loathed Stinkewitz before, he now dreaded it, and six years after, when he was apprenticed to a tanner, he surprised his master by asking, as for a special favor, that they would not force him to smoke leaf-tobacco. Frederick the Great, too, ascribed his abhorrence of the weed to the choking tobacco-fumes of the Wusterhauser club-room, where the boon companions of his awful parent used to indulge from 5 to 12 p. m. It is not necessary to suffocate a child with nicotine-fumes, but it can do no harm to take him once in a while to a smoker's den, to sniff the "pestilent and penal fires," and let him glory in his blest exemption.

Coffee and tea temptations, pungent spices, etc., may be forestalled in the same way; much is gained if the dietetic innocence of a child has been preserved to the end of the fourteenth year, the age when routine habits first become physiologically confirmed. The habits of the last years of growth become ingrained, as it were, with the constitution of the body, and will bias the physical inclinations of all after-years; circumstances may oblige a man to conform to the customs of a foreign country, the rules of a regimental mess, etc., but, upon the first opportunity of regulating his own regimen, the habits of his boyhood will reassert themselves, even in regard to the time and number of his daily meals. I know from personal experience the unspeakable advantage of having a constitutional predilection for postponing the principal meal till the day's work is done. It was the plan of the ancient Greeks, and to their followers every day is its own reward—the symposium, and the long, undisturbed siesta a daily festival. It almost doubles a man's working capacity, by saving him the dire daily struggle between duty and the after-dinner drowsiness. Children who have tried the two methods will rarely hesitate in their choice. Give them a lunch at twelve o'clock, and for breakfast a crust of sweet bran-bread, the coarser the better. A hard crust is the best possible dentifrice. I never could get myself to believe in the natural necessity of a tooth-brush. The African nations, the Hindoos, the natives of Southern Europe, the South-Sea Islanders, the Arabs, the South American vegetarians, in short, three fourths of our fellow-men, besides our next relatives, the frugivorous animals, have splendid teeth without sozodont. I really believe that ours decay from sheer disuse; the boarding-house homo lives chiefly on pap—wants all his meats soft boiled, and growls at cold biscuit or an underdone potato; in other words, he delegates to the cook the proper functions of his teeth. We hear occasionally of old men getting a second, or rather third, set of teeth. I met one of them in northern Guatemala, and ascertained that he had become toothless daring a twelve years' sojourn in a seaport town, and that he got his new set upon his return to his native village, where circumstances obliged him to resume the hard corn-cake diet of his boyhood years. His teeth had reappeared, as soon as their services were called for, and would probably never have absented themselves if a pap-diet had not made them superfluous. An artificial dentifrice will certainly keep the teeth white, but that does not prevent their premature decay; disuse gradually softens their substance, till one fine day the hash-eater snaps his best incisor upon an unexpected piece of bone. Every old dentist knows hundreds of city customers whom the daily use of a tooth-brush did not save from the necessity of applying, before the end of the fortieth year, for a complete "celluloid set." I do not say that a soft tooth-brush and such dentifrices as oatmeal or burned arrow-root can do any harm, but, for sanitary purposes, such precautions must be supplemented by dental exercise. Let a child invigorate its teeth by chewing a hard crust, or, better yet, a handful of "St. John's bread" or carob-beans, the edible pod of the Mimosa siliqua. Children and whole tribes of the northern races seem to feel an instinctive desire to exercise their teeth upon some solid substance, as pet squirrels will gnaw the furniture if you give them nut-kernels instead of nuts. Thus Kohl tells us that the natives of southern Russia are addicted to the practice of chewing a vegetable product which he at first supposed to be pumpkin or melon seeds, but found to be the much harder seed of the Turkish sunflower (Helianthus perennis). Their national diet consists of milk, kukuruz (hominy, with butter, etc.), and boiled mutton, and they seem to feel that their Turkoman jaws need something more substantial. The schoolboy habit of gnawing pen-holders, finger-nails, etc., may have a similar significance. The Mimosa siliqua would yield abundantly in our Southern States, and its sweet pods would make an excellent substitute for chewing-gum. Our practice of sipping ice-cold and steaming-hot drinks, turn about, has also a very injurious effect upon the brittle substance that forms the enamel of our teeth; no porcelain glaze would stand such abuse for any length of time, and experience has taught hunters and dog-fanciers that it destroys even the bone crushing fangs of the animal from which our canine teeth derive their name.

Various diseases of the eye, including myopia, strumous and catarrhal ophthalmia, are due to a scrofulous diathesis, and sometimes to a general debility, and can be radically cured only by out-door exercise and a more nutritious diet. But a transient "weak-sightedness" (Schwach-sichtigkeit, as the Germans call it), is eminently a disease of the school-room, caused by a persistent abuse of the eyes, poring for hours together over a spelling-book or writing by the light of a flickering candle (much worse than twilight), as well as by the wretched print of our modern dictionaries and cheap cyclopædias. It should be kept in mind that reading and writing, even under the most favorable circumstances, require an effort to which the eye can only very gradually accustom itself. Hereditary influences and the preliminary exercises of the infant's eye, as, in examining picture-books, the first graphic essays with a slate-plencil, etc., may help to smooth the difficulty; for it is a fact, attested by the experience of all school-teaching missionaries, that the eyes of an adult, sharp-sighted savage begin to smart and water at the first attempt to decipher the hieroglyphics of his primer. The rudiments ought to be taught in half-hour lessons, with liberal intervals of rest and out-door play; and scrofulous children should never be sent to a public school till after a novitiate of at least six months of home studies. Instruct them never to pore over a book, but to keep the head erect, and, at the first symptoms of dimsightedness, to let the eyes rest upon some distant object, till the optic nerve has recovered from the short-range strain. The hues of the forest have a wonderfully strengthening influence upon weak eyes, almost like its air upon weak lungs; a woodland excursion is like a return to our native element, the birth-land to whose life-conditions the organs of our ancestors were originally adapted.

Accidents can not be avoided by keeping a boy in his nurse's arms or in a padded family coach. Sooner or later he will have to rely ou his own limbs, and it is best that time should find him well prepared. Let him rough it, barefoot and bareheaded; let him climb hills and take short cuts over fences and ravines; every fall, every skinned elbow and bumped head, will impart a lesson in the art of locomotion. Without apprentice-fees of that sort he will never get to be a master. I would even connive at an occasional rough-and-tumble fight with a wild comrade; it will acquaint him with what Talleyrand used to call the "esoteric reason for preserving the peace." Constructiveness, too, often the redeeming propensity of a young scapegrace, has its dangers which had better be mastered than avoided. Instead of lecturing a lad or taking away his pocket-knife for cutting his finger, engage a carpenter to teach him the proper use of edge-tools. Let him have a little workshop of his own, with a lot of scrap-tin, boards, nails, and a five-dollar tool-box. Ten to one that those five dollars will save ten cents a week for dime-novels, and, by-and-by, ten dollars a month for beer and tobacco. If your son should manifest symptoms of the collecting-mania, try to direct it to objects of natural history—herbs, beetles, or butterflies. It may lead to deeper studies, and the love of nature in general. A passion for the study of natural history has often turned the scales in a choice between a farm and a dry-goods prison.

"On a visit to Paris," says Carl Weber ("Democritos," vol. ix, p. 166), "the Mentor of a young man, after a trip to the Jardin des Plantes, should not fail to take him to Bertrand Rival's Anatomical Waxwork Museum. It is no misnomer if Bertrand calls his collection 'Musée physiologique, historique et morale'—intended not only to instruct but to warn the visitor. Salus tota illa sapere est." As a last resort, perhaps, but hardly before the twentieth year. Precocious prurience is due to causes which can generally be avoided. If you can educate the younger children at home and select their playmates, there is no real danger before the eleventh year of a boy and the ninth of a girl. After that, the following precautions will suffice in all but the unluckiest cases: Let your children have plenty of out-door play, especially in the evening. Wait till they are really sleepy before you send them to bed. Let every child have its own bed, or at least its own bedclothes. Keep your small boys out of the servants' room, and your girls after their tenth year; with girls under ten there is less danger: they are quite sure to tell about any improper thing they see or hear, and the servants seem to know that instinctively. Do not leave them alone with elder children—not even with their own neighbors' and relatives'—till you have satisfied yourself about the character of their new friends. No need of a phrenologist to settle that point: the indications of a child's propensities are not confined to the cranium. Vary the child's diet with the season; put the flesh-pots aside when the approach of the summer solstice threatens the land with the temperatures and temptations of southern Italy. Let them avoid all greasy-made dishes when it is too warm to take much out-door exercise. And, if possible, cultivate their literary taste to the degree that enables them to appreciate the wit or the common-sense of an author, as well as his imagination, and consequently to loathe unmitigated absurdities. That alone will be an effectual safeguard against ninety-nine dime-novels out of a hundred.

In conclusion, I will add a short miscellany of hygienic rules and aphorisms.

The first thing a child should learn is to ask for a drink of water. I have seen hand-fed children scream and fidget for hours together, as if troubled by some unsatisfied want, but at the same time rejecting the milk-bottle and pap-dish with growing impatience. In nine such cases out of ten the nurse will either resort to paregoric or try the effect of a lullaby. I need not say that the poison-expedient would be wrong under all circumstances, but, before you try anything else, offer the child a cup of cold water. To a young nursling the mother's breast supplies both food and drink, but farinaceous paps require a better diluent than milk.

If I should name the greatest danger of childhood, I would unhesitatingly say, Medicine. A drastic drug as a remedial agent is Beelzebub in the rôle of an exorcist.

Our nursery system, after all reforms, is still far from being the right one—how far, we may infer from the fact that we have not yet learned to make our babies behave as well as young animals.

Tight-swaddling, strait-jacket gowns, and trailing petticoats—restraint, in short, makes our infants so peevish. If we would give them a chance to use their limbs they would have no time to scream.

It would prevent innumerable diseases if people would learn to distinguish a morbid appetency from a healthy appetite. One diagnostic rule is this, that the gratification of the latter is not followed by repentance; another, that the former has to be artificially and painfully acquired: our better nature resists the incipience of a morbid "second nature." After acquitting Nature from all responsibility for such factitious appetites, it may be justly said that a man can find a road to health and happiness by simply following his instincts.

The supposed danger of cold drinks on a hot day is a very expensive superstition. It deprives thousands of people of the most pleasurable sensation the human palate is capable of. It is worth a two hours' anabasis in the dog-days to drink your fill at the coldest rock-spring of the mountains.

Bathing in flannel!—I would as soon take ice-cream in capsules. The price of the flannel suit would buy you a season-ticket to a lonely beach.

A disposition to excessive perspiration is often due to general debility, but there is a specific remedy for it. Fill your knapsack with substantials and take a pedestrian trip in midsummer, up-hill, if possible, and without loitering under the shade-trees; in short, give your body something worth perspiring for. After that it will be less lavish of gratuitous performances of that sort. The soldiers of the Legion Étrangère are mostly northmen—Poles, Belgians, and Russians—but upon their return from a year's service in Algiers it takes a long double quick under a Mediterranean sun to drill them into a sweat.

"A catarrh is the beginning of a lung-disease." It would be the end of it if we did not aggravate it with nostrums and fusty sick-rooms.

Somehow or other we must have abused our teeth shamefully before Nature had to resort to such a veto as toothache.

A tooth pulled in time saves nine.

"If you doubt whether a contemplated act is right or wrong," says Zoroaster, "it is the safest plan to omit it." Let dyspeptics remember that when they hesitate at the brink of another plateful.

The digestion of superfluous food almost monopolizes the vital energy; hence the mental and physical indolence of great eaters. Strong headed business-men manage to conquer that indolence, but only by an effort that would have made the fortune of a temperate eater.

A glutton will find it easier to reduce the number of his meals than the number of his dishes.

Highland children are the healthiest, and, even starving, the happiest. "There is no joy the town can give like those it takes away."

Paracelsus informs us that the composition of his "triple panacea" can be described only in the language of alchemistic adepts. Nature's triple panacea is less indescribable—fasting, fresh air, and exercise.

A banquet without fruit is a garden without flowers.

The best stuff for summer-wear: one stratum of the lightest mosquito-proof linen.

"Do animals ever go to the gymnasium?" asks an opponent of the movement cure. Never: they have no time—they are too busy practicing gymnastics out-doors.

Descent from a long-lived race is not always a guarantee of longevity. A far more important point is the sanitary condition of the parents at the birth of the child. Pluck, however, is hereditary, and has certainly a prophylactic, a "health-compelling" influence.

The first gray hairs are generally a sign of dear-bought wisdom.

The "breaking-up" of a pulmonary disease could often be accomplished by breaking the bedroom-windows.

Death, formerly the end of health, is nowadays the end of a disease.

Dying a natural death is one of the lost arts.

There seems to be a strange fatum in the association of astronomy with humbug: formerly in horoscopes, and now in patent-medicine almanacs.

A patent-medicine man is generally the patentee of a device for selling whisky under a new name.

A "chronic disease," properly speaking, is nothing but Nature's protest against a chronic provocation. To say that chronic complaints end only with death, means, in fact, that there is generally no other cure for our vices.

Every night labors to undo the physiological mischief of the preceding day—at what expense, gluttons may compute if they compare the golden dreams of their childhood with the leaden torpor-slumbers of their pork and lager-beer years.

If it were not for calorific food and superfluous garments, midsummer would be the most pleasant time of the year.