Wednesday, 29 October 2014

"Death In The Pot!" Part I

“There is death in the pot!”[1]  The book of 2 Kings records that this was proclaimed, by several prophets, in response to the poisonous stew served to them.  The warning allowed Elisha to add flour to the stew, and so doing, remove the harmful effects rendered by poisonous gourds.[2] 

This dire warning was reprinted boldly, in capital letters, on the front cover of chemist Fredrick Accum’s 1820 book A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons.  

Accum's book cover.  Isn't it gorgeous?
As those who know me have discovered, I love food.  It’s no surprise, really, that I was so captivated by Accum’s graphic book cover, frontispiece, and words.  As an MA student many, many years ago, I even found myself nodding along to statements such as: “of all the frauds practiced by mercenary dealers, there is none more reprehensible, and at the same time more prevalent, than the sophistication of the various articles of food.”[3] 

Food adulteration, he wrote, was an “unprincipled and nefarious practice.”[4]
Accum's sense of drama was amazing.

Today we worry about consuming GMO corn, artificial foods, antibiotic and/or hormone-filled meat while fondly trying to recall the golden years when food was real food. 

In 19th century England, they were – more or less – trying to recall those days too.  Londoners, you see, were purchasing and consuming foods contaminated with everything from alum to opium to Prussian blue dye.  Indeed, food adulteration during the Victorian era was fraught with fraud, deaths, cover ups, and scandal and many accounts read like mystery or detective novels.

By mid-century there were a plethora of popular and scientific texts that warned the public about the harmful nature of the foods they were consuming.  Both the popular and professional texts indicted the law for its ineffectiveness and castigated the men who knowingly sold adulterated food.

This included such things as adding chemicals to foodstuffs to make colours more vibrant or to make textures lighter, and even adding cheaper substances to foodstuffs without alerting the customer.

Public patterns of consumption played a very, very important role in increasing food adulteration.  For example, tea coloured with Prussian blue, a mixture of ferric ferrocyanide, lime sulphate and turmeric, was prized for its appearance.[5]  Not only that, but adulterated beer was preferred by workmen to pure beer!  The workmen found that the adulterants – hallucinogens and other narcotics – provided effects that the unadulterated drink could never match.[6]

George Dodd, in his 1856 treatise The Food of London, mentioned repeatedly that the public was partially at fault.  The love of aesthetically pleasing foods, he believed, prompted merchants to adulterate products so that it would be both appetizing and affordable.  This practice was surprisingly widespread. 

Bread, for example, was adulterated with alum so that it appeared white.  Copper was added to pickles so that it appeared green.[7]  Dodd reprinted the text of a Times article which stated that “anatto is used only in the cheese destined for London; that it’s use is a mere conventionalism, like that of very white bread.”  In response, he concluded that “our absurd taste for richly tinted cheese thus tempts men to adulterate.”[8] 

He blamed adulteration not only on “absurd” city tastes, but on a “love of cheapness” as well.[9]  Londoners were far more willing to purchase goods that were impossibly inexpensive.  Thus, articles such as milk and coffee were mixed with cheaper substances – water and chicory respectively – to allow and encourage the London consumer to purchase them.

Most of the popular and scientific works decried this love of inexpensive and seemingly fancy goods.  They labeled food adulteration in legal terms, simply calling it cheating or fraud.  This language was most often used by the popular press, who was outraged particularly by the monetary losses of the consumer, more specifically, the already poor consumer.[10]  As an 1851 article stated succinctly, “if a person asks for oatmeal and pays for oatmeal, he has a right to expect oatmeal.”[11] 

Health, too, was a major concern.  First, Londoners lost nutrients due to food substitutions and second, were made to eat and drink poisonous or unhealthy substances in their food. 

In the case of the oatmeal, for example, the most common adulterant, barley, was not only substantially cheaper than oatmeal, but it possessed significantly less nutritive properties.[12] 

Likewise, another journal likened the mixing of water with milk to “committing murder by pinpricks” and “starvation administered in small doses.”[13]  More specifically, the author stated that adulterated milk did not provide the nutrients required for healthy life, thus “enfeebling the young, pinching the underfed, and stinting the sustenance allowed to the sick and aged.”[14]  Adulterating milk, in effect, preyed primarily on those most helpless in society.

Wealth, however, did not mean exemption from the dangers of impure or tainted food.

Not even chocolate was exempt.
An 1856 article in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts contrasted a culinary day in the life of a wealthy family and a poor, labouring family.  It found that both the rich and poor suffered greatly from the adulterations of foodstuffs.  

The poor Delver family, for example, purchased brown bread adulterated with “potatoes, bone-ashes, and clay,” while the wealthy Smith’s family purchased fine, white bread that was adulterated with alum, “Indian-corn, rice, gypsum, plaster of Paris, and chalk.”[15]  While the wealthy fared poorly, because the adulterants used to make fine white bread were far more harmful to one’s health, the poor suffered because they lost valuable nutrients in the meager meals they could afford.

Fredrick Accum was one of the first scientists to speak out against food adulteration. He cited the use of lead as causing “terrible diseases” and that “wine adulterated with the minutest quantity of it, becomes a slow poison.”[16]  The scientists writing on the topic decades later followed in his footsteps and were quick to point out the poisonous nature of the foods being consumed. 

Charles Cameron, a physician, stated that “several of the substances used in food sophistication are far from being harmless in their effects.”[17]  The eminent Dr. Hassall, for example, brought to attention that both invalids and children suffered early deaths due to adulteration. 

Everyone, he wrote – no matter how healthy one felt – was susceptible to harm as “the fact must be borne in mind that some of the metallic poisons used are what are called cumulative.”[18] 

Tune in on November 4th for Panacea’s 1st blogiversary and the second installation of Death in the Pot.  We’ll look at how investigations of food adulteration inevitably furthered the cause of science by demonstrating to the public that science had beneficial – and practical – applications.

Let me know what you think here or on Twitter – I’m @medhistorian.

[1] 2 Kings 4:40, NIV.
[2] 2 Kings 4:38-41.
[3] Fredrick Accum, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons, London (1820), 5.
[4] Ibid.
[5] F. B. Smith, People’s Health 1830-1910, New York, N.Y.: Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., (1979), 210.
[6] Ibid., 211. 
[7] Fredrick Accum, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons, London (1820), 308.
[8] George Dodd, The Food of London, reprint of 1856 edition, New York, N.Y.: Arno Press Inc. (1976), 311.
[9] Ibid., 419.
[10] See: “Tricks of Trade,” Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts 510 (Oct. 1863), 238; “Milk,” All the Year Round 13,306 (March 1865), 128; “Facts and Scraps,” Ragged School Union Magazine (Nov. 1873), 263.
[11] “Oatmeal and its Adulterations,” Reynold’s Miscellany of Romance, General Literature, Science, and Art 7,164 (Aug. 1851), 88.
[12] Ibid.
[13] “Milk,” All the Year Round, 128.
[14] Ibid.
[15] “The Poor Man at Market,” Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts 128 (June 1856), 373.
[16] Ibid., 107.
[17] Charles Cameron, Lectures on the Preservation of Health, London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin (1868), 97.
[18] Arthur Hassall, Food: Its Adulterations and the Methods for Their Detection, London: Longmans, Green, and Co. (1876),  837.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Plus ça change: Infectious Diseases Past & Present

“It troubled me to pass by Coome farme where about twenty-one people have died of the plague, and three or four days since I saw a dead corps in a coffin lie in the Close unburied, and a watch is constantly kept there night and day to keep the people in, the plague making us cruel, as doggs, one to another.”[1]
                                                                                 - Samuel Pepys, Monday 4 September, 1665.
“My parents said, quite a few times, that they wish I died.  I’m not sure that wouldn’t have been a better thing.  I’d come crawling through the living room, when they had company, and the subject would change, as to why I wasn’t walking and what was wrong.  They didn’t want anybody to know about it.  It’s something that’s contagious, and nobody wanted to be around it, for fear of catching it.  They would put me in the closet when they had company.”[2]
                                                                - Rick Spalsbury contracted polio in 1945 at the age of 2.
“Racial tension has swept through a block of flats in a suburb favoured by upwardly mobile immigrants where one resident has gone down with the disease despite having no direct exposure to carriers. ‘Our parents and our teacher told us to keep away from Chinese,’ said Narges Aziz, a nine-year-old whose parents were born in Afghanistan. ‘It's scary.’ Narges and her brother Daoud both wore surgical masks and surgical gloves to avoid infection when opening the door to the flats in the suburb of Scarborough.”[3]
                          - Marcus Warren "Sars spreads racial tension as Toronto feels pariah status," 2003.
“Warranted or not, the Ebola scare has hit Howard Yocum Elementary School in Maple Shade, New Jersey. The school has been notifying parents that two students from an east African nation have enrolled. They were supposed to begin classes on Monday; however, after backlash from parents, those kids are now being kept out of school.  The children in question moved here from Rwanda, which is about 2600 miles away from the closest affected country in West Africa. That's about as close as Seattle, Washington is to Philadelphia. But for some parents it really doesn't matter. ‘Anybody from that area should just stay there until all this stuff is resolved. There's nobody affected here let's just keep it that way,” said parent John Povlow.’”[4]
                                                              - Chris O'Connell "Burlington Students Kept Home," 2014.
Infectious diseases breed fear.  That this fear is then compounded by ignorance and whispered rumours, media, and our own imaginations is simply a fact of life.  Recently these fears have been reflected, perhaps too well, in news articles prophesying new superbugs and the end of civilization.
Disease, however, is an inevitable part of life.  As Tony McMichael wrote in his Human Frontiers, Environments and Disease, “as the scale of social-demographic change and of human impact on the ecosphere escalates, so the probabilities of infectious diseases, both new and resurgent, increase.”[5]  

Indeed, only in the past 50 years we’ve identified the following diseases and/or their pathogens: ebola (1976), Lyme disease (1982) HIV (1988), Hepatitis C (1989), “Mad Cow” disease and H5N1 bird flu (1997).[6]  We face the re-emergence of diseases like plague (bubonic), tuberculosis, and polio.

It is no wonder that we see pictures of people wearing surgical masks and homemade hazmat suits, or that sales of hand sanitizer have increased significantly, and that there are companies preying on people’s desperation by selling unapproved remedies.  In response to everything from the Justinian plague, to the sweating sickness, to influenza, SARS, and now ebola, humans have reacted in both truly heroic and truly horrible and illogical ways. 

Fear, panic, and anger, it seems, are universal reactions to infectious disease that transcend time.  As public health services seek to confine disease, it’s up to the rest of us to act responsibly and compassionately. 
For the second half of this post, Dr. Heather Battles shares some of the similarities between the mid-20th century polio epidemic and the current crisis over ebola:

The fear and panic over Ebola today echoes similar reactions in previous epidemics in human history - including polio in Canada in the mid-20th century.
Globe and Mail, August 18 1937, pg. 4
In an incident reminiscent of recent stories of people donning plastic body suits and face masks at airports out of fear of Ebola, during the 1937 polio epidemic in Ontario a tourist reportedly arrived at Niagara Falls wearing a gas mask.[7]  During that same epidemic, a Letter to the Editor by someone who signed himself “Family-Man” called for American tourists to be subjected to a medical examination upon entering Canada.[8]

Along with such anecdotes about individuals, the news media often presented contradictory and confusing messages about polio (sound familiar?).[9]  A 1948 Maclean’s article entitled “Don’t Panic Over Polio” attempted to reassure worried parents that polio was really a fairly uncommon disease and that their children’s chances of contracting it and either dying or being crippled by it were relatively low.[10]  However, the same article describes polio as “among the most mysterious of mankind’s afflictions”[11] and “the most difficult human disease to diagnose”[12] with “no known drug or treatment that can ward off paralysis.”[13] 

A further example of contradictory messages from media and public health officials can be found in three articles from the Globe and Mail newspaper in August of 1937.  One article reported on August 7 that three new paralytic polio cases had arisen and that officials were warning parents that all children with flu-like symptoms, which could be the start of polio, should be examined by a doctor.[14]  Another article on August 11 advised that “no complaint should be overlooked.”[15] Then on August 18, the page four headline screamed “Unfounded Paralysis Fear Causes Near Panic: Parents’ Imagination Blamed for Influx of Tots to Hospital.”[16]  The article quotes health officials as blaming parents for panicking and acting hysterical when most cases turn out not to be polio.[17]  Clive Seale notes in his book Media and Health that it is common for newspapers to appeal to readers “not to panic” while their stories encourage just that.[18]

Plus ça change…

Let me/us know what you think here or on Twitter, I’m @medhistorian with @anthroetc

[1] Diary of Samuel Pepys, 4 September 1665.
[2] Julie Silver and Daniel Wilson, Polio Voices: An Oral History from the American Polio Epidemics and Worldwide Eradication Efforts, Greenwood Publishing Group (2007), 67-68.
 [5] Tony McMichael, Human Frontiers, Environments and Disease: Past Patterns, Uncertain Futures, Cambridge University Press (2001), 122.
[6] Ibid., 115-116.
[7] Leslie Scrivener, “The Plague of ’37: When Polio Hit Toronto Schools and 758 Lives Changed Forever,” Toronto Star, September 6 1987, D1.
[8] Globe and Mail, September 2 1937, 6.
[9] Kathryn Black, In the Shadow of Polio: A Personal and Social History (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1996), 46-47.
[10] Nevill, “Don’t Panic Over Polio,” 7.
[11] Nevill, “Don’t Panic Over Polio,” 7.
[12] Nevill, “Don’t Panic Over Polio,” 32.
[13] Nevill, “Don’t Panic Over Polio,” 33.
[14] Globe and Mail, August 7 1937, 4.
[15] Globe and Mail, August 11 1937, 6.
[16] Globe and Mail, August 18 1937, 4.
[17] Globe and Mail, August 18 1937, 4.
[18] Clive Seale, Media and Health (London: SAGE Publications, 2002), 81.