Supply House Times

A Vivid Portrait Of The Cholera Era

December 17, 2009

This New York Times article takes us back to the bad old days of the 19th century before plumbers and plumbing engineers worked their magic in bringing sanitation to the masses.

It brings to mind a long-ago article that appeared in the Spring 1984 edition of Foreign Affairs, a magazine widely read by foreign policy works in and outside of government. It was written by the late Dr. Lewis Thomas, a world-renowned medical researcher and then Chancellor of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

His article, titled “Scientific Frontiers and National Frontiers: A Look Ahead,” analyzed the need for global cooperation in various scientific and technological endeavors. I excerpted a few paragraphs in the May 1985 edition of the nascent Plumbing & Mechanical magazine, which I served as editor, as follows:
    “There is no question that our health has improved spectacularly in the past century,” wrote Dr. Thomas. “One thing seems certain: it did not happen because of medicine, or medical science, or even the presence of doctors.

    “Much of the credit should go to the plumbers and engineers of the Western world. The contamination of drinking water by human feces was at one time the single greatest cause of human disease and death for us: it remains so, along with starvation and malaria, for the Third World. Typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery were the chief threats to survival in the early years of the 19th century in New York City, and when the plumbers and sanitary engineers had done their work in the construction of our cities these diseases began to vanish. Today, cholera is unheard of in this country, but it would surely reappear if we went back to the old-fashioned ways of finding water to drink.”

Quite a tribute from a great man to the people serving this great industry of ours.

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