Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/January 1889/Town-Life as a Cause of Degeneracy


By G. B. BARRON, M. D.

IT may be readily supposed that the conditions of life and their general surroundings must largely influence and materially affect the physical or constitutional characteristics of town-dwellers. At the onset, then, I venture to advance the proposition that the "vital force" of the town-dweller is inferior to the "vital force" of the countryman. The evidence of this is to be found in a variety of ways. The general unfitness and incapability of the dwellers in our large hives of industry to undergo continued violent exertion, or to sustain long endurance of fatigue, is a fact requiring little evidence to establish; nor can they tolerate the withdrawal of food under sustained physical effort for any prolonged period as compared with the dwellers in rural districts. It may be affirmed also that, through the various factors at work night and day upon the constitution of the poorer class of town-dwellers, various forms of disease are developed, of which pulmonary consumption is the most familiar, and which is doing its fatal work in a lavish and unerring fashion. Thus it may be conceded as an established fact that the townsman is, on the whole, constitutionally dwarfed in tone, and his life, man for man, shorter, weaker, and more uncertain than the countryman's. I hold the opinion that the deterioration is more in physique, as implied in the loss of physical or muscular power of the body, the attenuation of muscular fiber, the loss of integrity of cell-structure, and consequent liability to the invasion of disease, rather than in actual stature of inch-measurement. The true causes of this deterioration are neither very obscure nor far to seek. They are bad air and bad habits. To these may be added a prolific factor operating largely to produce degeneration of race, and that is, frequent intermarriage, often necessitated by religious affinities.

Taking these causes in the order in which I have placed them, but without reference to their relative intensity, I think bad air is a potent factor of enfeeblement. Included in the phrase "bad air" are bad sanitation and overcrowding. I have no doubt in my mind that it has a powerful and never-ceasing action, paramount and decisive, on the physical frames of young and old town-dwellers, producing deterioration of physique, lowered vitality, and constitutional decay. For over thirty years I have been hammering away at this question of "bad air" and "bad sanitation" as the prime causes of impairment of health and race, and the more I consider it the more I am convinced of the soundness of my conclusions. A great deal has been said on this subject, and it is not difficult to adduce conclusive evidence from a large variety of reliable sources in proof of the deleterious effects of impure air on the animal economy. Consumption is the best type of degenerative action and loss of vital energy. It stands out in bold relief as the disease most rife wherever foul air exists. The significance and value of fresh air were recognized by the old fathers of medicine. Hippocrates was accustomed to advise a walk in fresh air of ten or fifteen miles daily. Aretseus, Celsus, and Pliny speak of the good effect of fresh air; and our great English physician, Sydenham, did the same thing. Dr. Guy found that of 104 compositors who worked in rooms of less than 500 cubic feet of air for each person, 12·5 per cent had had spitting of blood; of 115 in rooms of from 500 to 600 cubic feet, 4·35 per cent showed signs of consumption; and in 100 who worked in rooms of more than 600 cubic feet capacity, less than two per cent had spit blood. Consumption is only one of the long list of evils to which the town-dweller is exposed. But it is not desirable to particularize all the medical features of this question; their name is legion. It may be well to mention that the Labrador fishermen and the fishermen of the Hebrides, with plenty of fresh air, are practically exempt from this disease. The absence of pure air acts upon the animal economy in much the same way as the withdrawal of light on plants, the result being pallor and feebleness of constitutional vigor. This effect ramifies in every direction; the tissues of which the human body is composed lose their tonicity and contractile power, and even mental integrity may be more or less affected. The pent-up denizens of the courts and alleys of our large towns, surrounded on every side by imperfect light, bad air, and the general aspects of low life, necessarily degenerate in physical competency, and their offspring is of a feeble type. Fortunately, one antidote is to be found in the nomadic instincts of such offspring. Better the gutter-life and street Arab gymnastics than the sickly incapability of a pent-up cellar child. When people are huddled together in badly ventilated hovels and narrow courts, compelled to live almost without light and air, the effects are soon made clear. The unsavory courts and slums of our large towns can not but be productive of a lowered vital force and impoverished physique. The fact must not be overlooked that there are two classes of town-dwellers: one being those who dwell for a limited number of hours in the day—that is, whose occupation keeps them in close offices and places of business during the day, but who sleep in the suburbs in purer atmospheric conditions; and those who pass the whole of their lives in bad contaminated air without the advantage of a few hours' respite out of the twenty-four. It is with the latter class that my observations deal.

The second chief factor of deterioration—viz., bad habits of life—tells a sad story on the physical power of the town-dweller; probably through ignorance, but certainly indifference to the ordinary precepts of health is the rule of life. It is no doubt a fact that intemperance largely exists among this class, and the incidence of debauch upon them is heavier than upon those who live under more favorable conditions. Then the various forms of impurity smite with devitalizing severity the offspring to the third and fourth generations. Moreover, the general tendency of their ailments is of the asthenic type. When we add to these conditions of human existence the influence of imperfect feeding and malnutrition, we get the state of physical degeneracy largely increased and emphasized. In the paper alluded to great stress was laid upon the diet of the town-dweller, as compared with that of the countryman, as tending to degeneracy and impaired health. The digestive capability of the former is of a lower standard, and less capable of dealing with the ordinary articles of diet, than the latter. Consequently, they live on such food as they can digest without suffering—bread, fish, and meat; above all, the last. The sapid, tasty flesh of animals, which sits lightly upon the stomach, gives an acceptable feeling of satiety, so pleasant to experience. Such selection is natural and intelligible, but it is fraught with danger. I quote from the paper: "The chief diet selected by the town-dweller begets a condition known to doctors as the uricacid diathesis, with its many morbid consequences. Pulmonary phthisis and Bright's disease seem Dame Nature's means of weeding out degenerating town-dwellers." Such are some of the medical aspects of the case. But it must not be lost sight of that there is a large class who are not able to procure much nourishing food of any kind, but, on the contrary, are forced by poverty to be content with less sustaining dietary, and they adopt another kind of food, not less injurious, but in another way—a diet mainly consisting of bread, tea, and such-like aliments. The time-honored fashion so prevalent among well-to-do people, of five-o'clock tea, may be attended with many advantages socially, but woe to those who take tea four or five times a day, and rely upon it alimentarily!

But it is not the male sex alone that we have to consider. The factors I have briefly enumerated tell a terrible story on the lives of mothers of this part of future England, and their offspring pay the penalty Nature imposes upon those who fail to fulfill her laws. Their children evidence constitutional disabilities of the frame, which is badly and slowly developed, while their mental precocity shows itself in a peculiar adroitness in all the arts of cunning acquisitiveness. It is supposed by some that the effects of mental activity thus early developed interfere with the development of the physique. No doubt the scanty necessaries of life induce a standard of craftiness and cunning which passes muster for intellect at an age which would imply precociousness and superiority, while the country child remains in its first simplicity.

But to the important question, "Is the town-dweller degenerating in stature, or is he not?" there is yet no satisfactory answer supplied. It has been said that such a thing as a pure cockney of the fourth generation is a rarity, and so it may be said of all other large towns. The immigration of country-folk of both sexes into our large towns is a well-known fact, and it is impossible to trace how far marriage supplies an admixture of new blood into the worn-out stock, and thus renovates it and becomes an antidote to decay. Taking the best evidence we possess, we can only approximately arrive at a solution of the problem. I have said that the degeneracy probably is more found in the loss of enduring tone and physical vigor than in inch-measurement. The constant and ever-recurring immigration of the strong and robust countryman into the cities constitutes a steady counterpoise to the downward tendency, and the balance is fairly well sustained. Hence the difficulty of solving the problem. Seven years ago, at the request of the Anthropometric Society, I obtained the measurement of three hundred men of various nationalities, some born in towns, some in the country, of various occupations, of different complexions and temperaments, and of various habits. I failed to discover any satisfactory evidence to lead to the conclusion that in actual inch-measurement the town-bred man was appreciably inferior to the country-bred man. But, so far as my observation enabled me to judge, the countryman came out incontestably superior in tone of muscular activity. These figures are recorded in the Anthropometric Society's Transactions. Standing alone, they are of no value; they prove nothing, because I had no evidence at what age town-dwelling ceased. It is in the mass of statistics that we can find proof. Mr. Francis Galton, to whom science is so much indebted, has recently recorded some measurements made by himself in his laboratory at South Kensington on men during the Health Exhibition, and has made a comparison with those of Cambridge University men. Mr. Galton's inquiry extended to as many as nine thousand persons. The relation of the two points to a considerable advantage of the Cambridge men:

Height. Weight. Breathing. Pull. Squeeze.
Cambridge 68·9 in. 153·6 lb. 254 83 87·5
Kensington 67·9 in. 143·0 lb. 219 74 85·0

These figures appear to substantiate the statistics of the Anthropometric Society: that the average well-to-do man has a higher general physical condition than the average of a lower grade of society; a similar, though not so well-defined, brain-development exists. These measurements, so far as proof of stature is concerned, must be accepted with some degree of reservation. Presuming that the Cambridge students were drafted from the upper stratum of society, and from the country mainly, there is no evidence that the other class were all from towns.

The tables of the Anthropometric Society, as issued by Mr. Roberts and published in the "York Meeting Transactions," state that the result of a comparison as to the average height and weight of the several classes of the population distinguished as (1) the professional classes, including town and country; (2) the commercial classes in towns; (3) the laboring classes in the country; and (4) the artisans in towns. The relative position of the four classes stands in the order stated, Classes 1 and 2 being taller and Classes 3 and 4 slightly shorter than the general population. This relation is maintained throughout, and the tables afford material for study as to the comparative effects of occupation and town and country life on growth. Another table (No. 6) relates to weight. Here, again, the relative position of the four classes stands in nearly the same order. Class 1 being heavier, and Class 4 (i. e., artisans in towns) lighter than the general population; but Class 3 (country laborers) very nearly coincides with the general average, and is, in general, superior in weight to Class 2 (commercial classes in towns). In other words, the occupation of the country laborer places him in weight over the town tradesman, though the latter has the advantage in height.

As regards the physical improvement or degeneracy of the population, the report of the Anthropometric Committee at the Southport meeting says: "Few statistics are in existence which help to throw light on this subject. It is generally believed that the population in the manufacturing towns of the north of England is rapidly degenerating, but a comparison of the measurements of stature and weight given in the report of the Factory Commission, and the report to the Local Government Board of the employment of children and young persons in factories, 1873, show that this is not the case."

What we want is more extensive inquiries as to measurements of persons who have lived in large towns for two or three generations, and compare them with those who have lived in the surrounding country for some generations without admixture. Such an inquiry is surrounded by difficulties, but it alone would be conclusive. My contention is, that it is in the loss of physique, of muscular tonicity, vital capacity, and vital force that the degeneracy is to be found. Let the town-dweller of the same height and weight go to the Grasmere sports or the Braemar gathering and try conclusions in wrestling or games of prowess and endurance with the hill-side man, and the issue will not long hang in doubt; the town man has no "staying power," no "muscular contractile power," and he soon comes to grief. Probably no arrest in the downward tendency of constitutional power can take place until there is some amelioration in the conditions of life to which town-dwellers are subjected. Development and integrity of cell-structure, and the processes of vital organization, are next to impossible under such circumstances of life as those to which they are exposed. This question is a broad one, and involves many ramifications. If all the circumstances connected with the so-called "sweating system" brought out by "The Lancet" Commission can be sustained as facts, a terribly hideous and degrading state of things exists among those unfortunate creatures compelled by the irony of Fate to dwell and work in the slums of our great towns. Their life is little removed from the process of wallowing in dirt, and abiding in squalor and poverty of the most appalling description. They are surrounded by every circumstance of human existence calculated to debase the mind and destroy the body. Is it possible to conceive any state of life more conducive to loss of health and dwarfing of physical development? These poor creatures appear to have no qualifying or redeeming feature in their every-day routine of life. Breathing in their insanitary homes the reeking fumes of unhealthy surroundings, an atmosphere vitiated to the last degree of respiratory fitness, to which are added unwholesome food and consequent faulty assimilation the aggregation must inevitably result in depraved constitutional integrity. Nor is there the faintest silver lining to this dark social cloud. These people have not the relieving benefit of sleeping in pure air after a day of hard work of twelve or fourteen hours' duration in the disease-laden atmosphere of insanitary workshops, but are subjected by day and by night to conditions as far removed from the sources of health as the poles are asunder. Their daily occupations and mode of life in the workshop are bad, and their homes also are bad.

It may pertinently be asked. What is the remedy to hinder further degradation of racial power, and rescue the town-dwellers from the agencies so powerfully operating upon their physical competency? I fully recognize the cogency of such a question, but I must at once admit my inability to suggest a satisfactory answer. It may to some extent be found in adopting legislative measures. No doubt sanitary reform is doing an excellent work. Insanitary surroundings, overcrowding, uncleanliness, impurity, and intemperance, must all be done away with or lessened. Educate the children in the pure air of the country, make the parents aware of the great constitutional value of sobriety and morality, give them all pure air and plenty of it, and away fly the pale faces, cachexia, lowered vitality, stunted development, muscular attenuation, and the imperfect elimination of functional products.—The Lancet.

  1. Abstract of a paper read at the British Association Meeting, Bath.