We take public safety essentially for granted nowadays. We all think nothing of driving alone at night, walking well-lit sidewalks, or cycling for carefree miles, as if it were all somehow the perpetual norm of the human existence. Yesterday, I was annoyed, writing here on how some seem determined to forget how we have evolved to this previously unparalleled and happy civilizational situation, and appear not to consider how fundamentally fragile it truly is.
Relatedly, we also tend to forget how long-lived and healthy we are and why we are. A large part of the reason for that isn’t down to “good genes” as it would have been for most of human history. We are assisted in great measure by the medical care we now also appear to take for granted.
We read Jane Austen voraciously. Laboring away at her tales largely in anonymity in her quiet family homes in southern England, she would sell only small numbers of books in her own lifetime. What that young woman might have thought if she somehow could have learned that two hundred years after her death she would be read around the globe by uncounted millions, translated into languages she’d never known existed, that her stories would be performed time and again by actors on film (What’s film?), and that she would come in many minds to rival even Shakespeare.
And some wonder why anyone is interested in history? She didn’t have access even to an aspirin. From a comfortable – but not rich – family, she died in 1817 at age 41. However, had she been born in 1975 instead of in 1775, odds are she wouldn’t be about to die next year of whatever the heck it was she died of.
In America in the same era, George Washington was one of the country’s richest men – mostly thanks to his wife Martha’s money. They lost her teenage daughter (his stepdaughter) to what was apparently a “Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy” that today would be far more treatable.
Thomas Jefferson was only slightly less rich, and lived to a “ripe old age” (1743-1826) of 83 himself. Yet his personal longevity was not down to advanced medical care. Even with access to the best “medicine” of his day, even that best wasn’t very good.
Tragically, he could only but sit and watch helplessly as his own Martha died after a lingering illness in 1782, at age 33. She had given birth six times in their ten year marriage and had also had miscarriages; so she had been pregnant for most of their marriage. She may have also developed diabetes. And child after child died not long after birth. (She had married Jefferson as a young widow, and had also had a child with her first husband, and that child had died, too.) Only one of their six children, a daughter, outlived Thomas.
Even having piles of money in the pre-industrial world couldn’t buy you advanced medical care. It just didn’t exist. As for “ordinary” people then living in Europe and America, naturally their experiences were usually no better.
How the Industrial Age advances of the later 19th into the 20th and now 21st centuries have radically improved medicine. One of my cousins has a college age daughter who has been a Type 1 diabetic for over 15 years. Chances are she would not have made even age ten had she been born two centuries ago.
Years ago, I’d also known a Frenchwoman who was one: her pancreas had stopped producing insulin at age three. But she grew up trying to live as conventional a life as possible, relying on treatments unheard of in “1790.”
What humanity in “1790” would have given for our medicine. They would be astonished at what we talk about as if it were all so routine: everything from childhood vaccinations, to well-monitored pregnancies, to heart transplant surgery, and so much more.
True, illness and early death still happen, including in childhood. My sister-in-law’s brother lost his five year old son in 2008; but that was a shocking oddity in our world. In fact, it led to his local MP demanding an explanation in the House of Commons from the Health Secretary about the child’s NHS treatment. A cabinet post called “health secretary,” and a National Health Service itself, weren’t even imagined in “1790.”
Frankly, if we who are alive now had been born into so-called “medicine” in, say, “1790,” when survival and longevity were down really only to a combination of the strength of our personal constitution and luck, most of us simply would not be here. We are among the most fortunate humans who have ever lived. It is worth remembering that.
Have a good Friday, wherever you are. 🙂