Scientific American(s) and the other 99%

If you have an interest in the history of science, especially as it plays out in the so-called state-of-the-art defense in products liability litigation, you may find the following offer helpful.  For the remainder of the month, Scientific American, which is now published by Nature, is making its archived issues, 1845-1909, available free of charge.

There is more fascinating than to read what people were thinking, saying, and writing, at times past.  Most of what we think we know about the past is filtered by historians rather than being obtained by accessing primary sources.  The Scientific American archive is a useful corrective measure, especially in the contentious area of health-effects litigation.

Here are some of the interesting historical insights.  In 1871, 140 years ago, Scientific American ran an article on the ill-health effects of smoking.  “To smoke or not to smoke,” Scientific American 375 (Dec. 9, 1871).  Here are some highlights:

“M. Beau notices eight cases of angina pectoris caused by the use of tobacco.

Professor Lizars records several cases of cancer of the tongue and lips caused by the use of the pipe. The writer has known one such ill stance, and never wishes to see another example of such terrible suffering resulting from a worse than useless habit.”

These pronouncements might not pass muster under today’s evidence-based medicine, but they were astute observations in need of testing, in 1871.

Not all the medical observations and claims were equally prescient.  Our forebears were not immune from the idiocies and enthusiasms of medical quackery.  Cancer remedies seemed to be a particular focus of much unenlightened attention:

“Col. Ussery, of the parish of De Soto, informs the Editor of the Caddo Gazette that he fully tested a remedy for this troublesome disease, recommended to him by a Spanish woman, a native of the country. The remedy is this:  Take an egg and break it, then pour out the white, retaining the yolk in the shell, put in salt and mix with the yolk as long as it will receive it, stir them together until the salve is formed, put a portion of this on a piece of sticking plaster and apply it to the cancer about twice a day. He has made the experiment twice in his own family with complete success.”

Remedy for Cancer,” Scientific American 298 (June 12, 1847).

Or this forerunner of the clinical trial:

“The Tuscaloosa Observer says it has seen it stated, more than once, that the common cranberry was efficacious in the cure of cancer, but have never, until very recently, been an eye-witness to the fact. Mr. Middleton Belk, residing within four or five miles of this city, who was afflicted with a cancer on the nose for the last eight years, was induced to try cranberries applied as a poultice; and to his great joy and satisfaction, has experienced a perfect and radical cure. We mention this fact at the instanee of Mr. Belk, who is desirous that others suffering under the same affliction, may avail themselves of this simple, but valuable remedy.”

Cranberries a Cure for Cancer,” 3 Scientific American 408 (Sept. 9, 1848).  Another article, three years later, touted mineral naptha as a cancer cure.  “Mineral Naptha,” 6 Scientific American 243 (April 19, 1851).

The pages of Scientific American document the rise of asbestos use and the growing awareness of asbestos’ great utility to help control and prevent fire and burns.  For instance, in 1876, the magazine described the utility of asbestos in roofing materials and in pipecovering.  “The Industrial Uses of Asbestos,” Scientific American 258 (April 22, 1876).

A few years later, an article described the widespread use of asbestos in industrial applications, both in Europe and in the United States:

“For some time past Toope’s covering for steam surfaces has been in use in England, giving great satisfaction and receiving the indorsement of many prominent English engineers.  The business of manufacturing and selling it is conducted there by a limited company located in London.
In this country Mr. Charles Toope, manufacturing agent, having an office and works at 353 East 78th street, New York City, is making and introducing the covering.  The covering is readily applied, requires no previous preparation, and when in place is permanent, being incapable of injury by jarring or pounding.”

Felt and Asbestos Covering for Steam Surfaces,” Scientific American 357 (December 4, 1880). [353 East 78th is right around the corner from me.  I doubt that many of the residents of this mid-rise apartment building know that an asbestos factory once graced their property.]  See also The Prevention of Fires in Theaters,” 35 Scientific American 401 (Dec. 23,1876); Insulated Coverings for Pipes, Boilers, Etc.,” 59 Scientific American 355, 355 (Dec. 8, 1888).

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