Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year -- Here's to your health

I have just finished reading Ron Chernow's big biography of Alexander Hamilton, American Founding Father, known to the rest of the world, if for no other reason, as the face on the ten dollar bill.

Chernow makes no special mention of it, but one thing that impressed me as I read the book is just how much illness and death were part and parcel of late-18th-century life.

In Hamilton's time, if you didn't have a toothache or gastric distress of one sort or another you could count your lucky stars. Typhoid, yellow fever, smallpox, and a host of other infectious diseases were ever-present threats. Infant mortality and the death in childbirth were commonplace. George Washington died of a throat infection contracted while riding in a snowstorm. Even a knick with a razor could be fatal.

The most famous physician in Hamilton's American was Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia. He treated victims of yellow fever with a horrendous regimen of bleedings, purgings and induced vomiting that probably caused more deaths than cures.

Today, we take good health for granted, and complain when we suffer heartburn or a sniffle. Early death is the exception rather than the rule, and debilitating illness is a matter for the resourcefulness of physicians.

Scientific medicine was pretty much an invention of the 19th century. Imagine a world without vaccines and anesthetics, without safe public water and sewage systems. Jump another century ahead and consider the boon of antibiotics.

A little history can be a bracing antidote for any nostalgic longing for "the good old days."