Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/April 1907/How Shall the Destructive Tendencies of Modern Life Be Met and Overcome?



WHEN Bichat referred to civilization as 'nothing more than the environment which tends to destroy humankind,' he had in mind, presumably, the so-called civilization of his own time, which we are willing to concede was considerably below that of to-day in every respect and far below that of the Greeks and Romans. To illustrate the superior efficiency of what we may call a natural method of treating diseases over the highly artificial and fanciful methods which prevailed long after Bichat's time, an extract from Higgins's 'Humaniculture' may be paraphrased as follows: It is a matter of record that Augustus Cæsar recovered his health after the expedition into Spain, when suffering from an attack of illness, said to have been due to an inflammation of the liver, by a treatment of baths and an exclusively vegetable diet; whereas, Louis XIV. of France, living 1,600 years later, "in the short space of one year took 215 different medicines, 212 enemata and was bled no less than 47 times." Here is a striking example of progression backwards. As Dr. Higgins sententiously remarks, "A kindly historian would surely take such adverse circumstances into consideration when he gave his judicial opinion on the acts of such unfortunate monarchs."

There are still those who seem to believe that every disease has its appropriate and efficient remedy: a dogma long ago exploded. The only certain remedy for any disease is a man's own vital power. If the body is strong enough and well-nourished enough it will throw off the diseased condition. Drugs, outward applications, mental or spiritual influences, baths, regulation of the diet, ventilation and temperature may be of such efficient and timely aid as to turn the tide of battle from defeat to victory and may help nature to triumph. They, however, are only adjuncts. The natural inherent power of the body itself is the sine qua non, the absolute essential; without which all therapeutic measures whatever will prove unavailing.

Admitting then that this condition of bodily vigor is necessary before we can recover from sickness, or can withstand a severe injury, or shock, is it not possible to so train and develop the body that it will be practically non-susceptible to illness and not only that, but so that it will be far more efficient and enduring for all of life's work than the non-trained or improperly developed body? There can be only one answer to this question.

Probably the day has gone by when it is necessary to argue with intelligent people in regard to the relationship between a man's intellectual power and his bodily health and development. Had we not the splendid example of the Greek civilization before us, we could still reason it out from analogy and observation that a healthy mind can not under average conditions exist outside of a healthy body. As President Eliot has neatly put it, "The scholar must use strenuously a tough and alert body and possess a large vitality and a sober courage."

The contempt in which bodily exercise has been held for many centuries and the undue laudation of mental as opposed to physical prowess are to a great extent at least a residuum of the reaction of the ecclesiastical and medical superstitions of the dark ages against the natural methods of the Greek philosophers and against what was considered a too predominant admiration for the physical as opposed to the spiritual side of life. It seems to have been considered heathenish to be well formed and well developed, erect of body and broad of chest. The ideal saint was anæmic to a degree; the ideal successful lawyer or prosperous merchant was of e full round belly with good capon lined'; the ideal lady was Miss Lydia Languish with wasp-like waist and no organs in particular. For the last half century, however, the reaction toward universal physical prowess and bodily excellence has been advancing, and just now with its gradually accelerated momentum it is making wonderful progress. A great and widespread awakening is taking place in regard to the proposition which I have laid down as axiomatic: that there must be a synchronous and properly balanced development of mind and body, if man is to even approximate his glorious destiny.

Unfortunately, many of the simplest rules relating to the development and care of the human body are as yet enveloped in mystery, or, to speak more exactly, no two authorities seem to agree upon them. The investigation of the régime in vogue in a number of sanatoria by Professor Fisher has demonstrated that scarcely any two of them agree in the diet prescribed for consumptive patients. The calorific value of the prescribed food for each person ranges, in the different institutions, between 2,000 and 5,500 calories per diem, or a difference of 250 per cent. If then in a disease which has received the great amount of attention and study which has been bestowed upon tuberculosis, for a number of years, and in which the modern treatment is mainly confined to the three natural agencies of diet, fresh air and sunlight, there is no accord amongst clinicians as to the standard diet, what wonder is it that in other diseased conditions and more especially in health the greatest confusion prevails in regard to the best form of diet?

Chemical and microscopic experiments in laboratories, however important, even absolutely essential though they are, will never decide certain vital questions. Note the fantastical deduction of Metchnikoff, who asserts that the large intestine is really a lusus naturæ, a dangerous and disease-breeding portion of the economy which had better be dispensed with, at least to the extent of a few feet. The idea does not seem to have dawned upon him that the colon might not be dangerous were it not overloaded with the unused products of an excessive alimentation. Nor can experiments upon animals, nor investigations in the professor's laboratory, ever determine this question, while there are already enough isolated instances on record to render it at least extremely probable that an extended investigation of a sufficient number of human beings would prove that the dangerous element in the life of the modern man is not the anatomical mistake of superabundant intestine, but the overindulgence of a pampered appetite. Nor can a priori reasoning be depended upon to settle some very simple controversies, as, for instance, that between the vegetarians and the flesh eaters. So far as the writer knows, no reliable statistics have ever been compiled in regard to the longevity and efficiency of either of these classes as compared with the other. The means for settling this important question lie ready to our hands, viz., a careful collection and analysis of the statistics.

The question of the harmfulness or the innocuousness of tobacco is so far from settlement that certain good authorities declare that its use may be a cause of arterio-sclerosis, while others say that, used in moderation, it is harmless. There is every probability that a properly conducted questionaire would settle this moot point, and so we might undoubtedly settle the question of the real influence of coffee and tea upon the health, and of various articles of diet, as well as meat and fish. Jonathan Hutchinson's contention that fish eating is the cause of leprosy and the commonly accepted belief that beri beri is due to eating musty rice, or even rice in good condition in undue proportion, have an exceedingly important bearing upon the question question of dietetics.

The United States can no longer afford to neglect the experimental study of tropical diseases, since we are building the Panama Canal and have vast tropical possessions in the Philippines, not to mention Porto Rico. There is every encouragement to prosecute such researches when we reflect upon the splendid achievements of our army surgeons, Reed, Gorgas, Ashford, Sternberg and others. Life has been rendered happier and more secure by the devoted scientific labors of these men. Col. Giles has said, speaking of tropical diseases, in regard to the adaptability of the English to life in India, that Clive, being a genius, "naturally possessed the originality to modify his habits to his new surroundings and so survived to become an empire-builder and a hero. Nor was the case exceptional, for looking back on the history of our great Indian dependency, one can not fail to be struck with the high average ability of the few who survived to attain leading positions. . . . But the rank and file, who could not or would not learn, died off like rotten sheep." So it is to-day in all parts of the globe and nowhere more plainly true than in the United States that only an exceptional man, almost a genius, learns to modify his habits and his life to his environment and to triumph over his surroundings, his appetites and the absurd dictates of fashion. All the world over the genius carves out his proper régime for himself, the average man, ignorantly complaisant, indulges his appetites like the rest of his kind, dies like a rotten sheep and leaves his life-work unfinished.

The foregoing remarks have been confined mainly to diet because that is now the most pressing question before the people of this country and because, as said above, it is a matter upon which the utmost diversity of opinion exists. An observation of 10,000 people for ten years may be necessary to settle the question of the average standard diet for the average man at the different stages of life. If, however, it should take ten times as long and cost an amount equal to the national debt, it would be money and time well expended if the question should be settled thereby. In collating vital statistics, while the time of the death of any one man can not with certainty be predicted, the deaths of ten thousand individuals can be fixed with the nicest accuracy. Nothing can be asserted in regard to the individual, but in regard to the multitude the success of the statistical method is surprising. So in the matter of the health records of one man little can be assumed from a study of his habits; if, however, we could ascertain the life habits of 10,000 men, there is no question but that we could establish certain important truths in regard to them beyond all controversy. And it is equally certain that this is the only method by which some of these truths can be established. There is to-day absolutely nothing known about the etiology of cancer. This dreadful and constantly increasing disease has been studied in every way; in the individual, at the bedside, in the laboratory, in the post-mortem room, by inoculation into animals, etc., etc., and nothing conclusive has been discovered in regard to its causation. Had the lifehabits of 10,000 people suffering with cancer been studied as to their diet, their occupation and surroundings, their use of alcohol, tobacco, etc., as well as the questions of heredity, of physical development and of the precedence of other diseased conditions in the same subject, there can be no doubt that important and probably convincing light, would have been shed upon the whole question. Studied in individuals, the cause of this scourge of the race has escaped every effort to locate it; had it been studied collectively, with a large enough number of observations, its cause would probably have been discovered and its ravages arrested. This probability becomes a certainty if the disease, as has often been asserted, is caused by diet or by residence in certain localities.

Lacking an authoritative standard of such an apparently simple thing as the human diet leaves the people a prey to any glib-tongued person who has any strictly original views to advance or pet theories to advocate. A certain magazine article which recently ridiculed most modern theories of diet and laid special stress on pork and beans as the ideal dietary of the vigorous and progressive, is a fair sample of the mischievous and pseudo-scientific writing which catches the popular eye and may do untold harm. The people deserve and should have a dietary standard, and there should be some competent and properly-equipped body, like the council on pharmacy and chemistry of the American Medical Association, who will spend the necessary time and trouble to settle the questions, not alone of the physiological diet, but of the proper bodily exercise, of ventilation, heating, bathing, etc., etc., in short of personal hygiene; as well as the problems affecting the public health, the pollution of streams and the extinction of tuberculosis.

Furthermore, any new system of therapeutics or any alleged new remedy should be submitted to this body of experts for trial, and approval or condemnation, before it should be possible to advertise it to the public. A variety of methods of treatment are from time to time exploited and no one has the legal right to supervise them or to decide whether, on the one hand, they can do what they are advertised to be able to accomplish or, on the other hand, whether they can be trusted not to harm and injure the people.

If the government can inspect food, it certainly has a right, and should exercise it, to determine, for example, whether or not any newly-advertised method of treatment is safe and appropriate. The objection may be raised against such a proposition as the foregoing that it would be an interference with the personal liberty of which our country is so justly proud; to which the obvious reply is that it is not suggested that any one who wishes to submit to any special course of treatment for a particular disease should be prevented by law from doing so, but every one has a right to know whether the claims of any newly-advertised remedy can be substantiated. In other words, it is no infringement of personal liberty to force a person who professes to have a new and valuable remedy to prove that it is at least not injurious before he shall be allowed to exploit it.

In the material world we have studied everything that grows or exists that can be marketed or used for man's sustenance or comfort, to extend his knowledge, beautify his home, or divert his leisure, but man himself in his most necessary functions, to wit, as an animal, has not been studied in any comprehensive and thorough manner, unless we may say that the Japanese have done it, since the days of Juvenal who gave us the immortal sentiment 'mens sana in corpore sano.'

If twentieth-century civilization is to make further advance, if our beloved country is to be much longer inhabited by Americans, if in short the present Anglo-Saxon race is not to die out, steps must be taken to study the conditions of existence and ascertain what measures must be adopted to prevent the terrible waste of human life, now going on without let or hindrance. We are wasteful of many things, but of nothing else are we so wasteful as of human life. And most of this waste is entirely preventable. President Mayo said at the last meeting of the American Medical Association that a sufferer from typhoid fever has as good a right to sue the city where he contracted the filthy complaint as though he had hurt himself by a fall on a defective pavement, and yet we read in the newspapers of epidemics of typhoid fever just broken out in Cincinnati, Newark and other places. Were it outbreak of rinderpest or foot-  and mouth-disease, stringent means would be at once taken to stop it and all the forces of the government would be enlisted to save cattle or sheep that have a market value. But human beings may die of typhoid fever, as our soldiers did in Camp Thomas, and no one be called to account; and yet we call ourselves a civilized and a God-fearing nation. Verily our brother's blood shall be required at our hands.

Lyman Abbott said in his baccalaureate sermon at Cambridge that we are entering a period of fraternalism: "There has been autocracy and individualism, but the new life shall be one not of socialism, nor communism, but of fraternalism." We are the keepers of our brother's body, his health, his happiness, his children and his chance to develop and to work out his destiny. We can not escape this responsibility. Knowing its duty, our government must do it and will do it.

Does any one doubt the possible value of government interference in the hygiene of daily life? If so, let him reflect on the diminished death-rate from tuberculosis since the treatment of the disease by fresh air, sunlight and an improved dietary has been so largely inaugurated. The death-rate from this disease in the United States has fallen in twenty years from about 40 per 10,000 of the population annually to about 18 per 10,000, and there is every reason to believe that it can be reduced still lower. The returns furnished in the German tuberculosis congress show a decrease of 38 per cent, in deaths from phthisis in Germany since 1875. The German insurance companies from 1901 to 1905 spent over $9,000,000 in fighting the disease and in establishing thirty-six sanatoria. These sanatoria, together with strict inspection and enforcement of sanitary regulations in that country, are believed to be the cause of the remarkable decrease in the mortality from consumption.

The diseases of the circulatory and eliminative organs, of which arterio-sclerosis may be cited as the type, are the destructive element which bear off our brain workers and educated men many years before their time. Does any one doubt that these men might live as long, as happily and usefully as Carnaro did, if they will ascertain, as he did, the physiological régime upon which their lives should be governed and act accordingly?

See what Japan, in the science of domestic hygiene certainly the most civilized nation on the globe, has accomplished in the few short years between its war with China and its war with Russia. In the former war three Japanese soldiers died from disease to one who died from wounds. This has been considered the average mortality rate of modern warfare, and so strong is prejudice and so well entrenched is error that this ratio has been looked upon as the inevitable consequence of war, whereas in the Russo-Japanese war, by the exercise of simple and perfectly feasible methods, the ratio of the mortality from sickness to that from wounds in the Japanese army assumed the proportion of one to four and one half, a difference from the accepted ratio of almost 800 per cent. No one would have believed this possible had it not been amply demonstrated. Suppose that an army of United States troops was opposed to a Japanese army. It would not be necessary for the latter to strike a blow or to fire a gun; if they could only hold our army in check for six months disease would do the rest. Do I say disease? I mean the ignorance and officialism which prevents the systematic adoption of the study of the individual soldier and the reasonable precautions which have borne such splendid results in Japan. And shall we decline to undertake similar studies in civil life because this has not been done heretofore? Did not Baron Takaki's epoch-making study of the ration in the Japanese navy stamp out beri beri in that branch of the service and enable Admiral Togo to annihilate the splendid Russian fleet?

We live as though we fully believed that man, of all living animals, is exempt from natural laws or can live superior to them. Race horses, bullocks, poultry, are reared under the strictest rules of diet and hygiene. Our children are left to ignorant nurses, or the divided counsels of improperly instructed medical men. We pass laws to prevent the children of the poor from working nights or in unwholesome surroundings, and yet we allow an overcrowded a»d ill-advised system of public instruction to seriously and sometimes fatally injure our own children.

There is a glaring hiatus in our educational system. The only remedy is in the proper physical education of children and the instruction of parents and teachers in the rules of proper physiological development. Rules for the development and classification of children in the public schools of Chicago have, after much painstaking labor, been pretty well worked out. These results should be collated and compared with similar results obtained in other cities and good working rules deduced from them for national application. Only a board of skilled workers under national control would have the authority, the influence and the means to formulate and apply such rules.

No doubt this proposition will meet with opposition from the stagnant elements of society, known as conservative, and from scientists falsely so-called (being in truth pedants and the greatest hinderance to all true progress). All thinking men will agree, however, that if such an investigation did nothing else, it would tend to develop the physical conscience and clarify the average conception of life. Could people generally be convinced that over-indulgence in flesh food is one of the principal causes, not alone of early decay and death, but of the almost unquenchable human appetite for alcohol and narcotics, an immense stride would have been made in human progress. And it is extremely likely that of the $600,000,000 which this country is said to spend annually in caring for its defectives and criminals, enough could be saved in a few years to carry on such an investigation as we have outlined for a lifetime. 'Science is the only true charity and the only true remedy.' Allowing degeneration, allowing intemperance, allowing immorality, gluttony and ignorance to emasculate our youth, poison the body politic, fill our penal institutions and, worst of all, prevent the proper development of our men and women, is race suicide on a scale not contemplated in ordinary family life, but multiplied by millions, and surely, unless checked, leading to national destruction and disintegration. The remedy is a proper solution of the so-called common questions of life: the neglected body, the despised dietetics, the irksome exercise must be studied by trained and accomplished experts not clinicians, not school teachers, not moralists, not sanitarians in the ordinary acceptation of the term, but specialists in humaniculture, humanists in the true sense, and these great and simple truths, which the Greeks mastered, must be learned over again in the light of modern science (not pedantry), and taught to our children's children; then shall be realized "that future where the highest art and most perfect science will be those of the development of man's faculties and aptitudes to a degree of which the Greek civilization will afford an indication instead of an unattainable ideal."