Candice Millard’s book, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, chronicles the atrocious medical care given to President James Garfield after he was shot in an assassination attempt in 1881. It should teach us a valuable lesson about embedding science in our most important public health policy.
Garfield would have survived the bullet, but died weeks later from infection after gross medical malpractice. Most American doctors of the time dismissed the “germ theory” pioneered by non-American scientists, such as British physician Joseph Lister.
Because they couldn’t see them, American doctors ridiculed belief in bacteria, comparing it to the silly, contemporary belief in fairies. They even took a macho pride in their filth, carrying blood, pus and dirt from one patient to the next. Surgeons treating Garfield routinely performed surgery without changing their clothes or washing their hands, and held instruments in their teeth for convenience. In 1881, American country doctors were still applying hot cow manure to open wounds.
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Naïveté was no excuse for these appalling practices. The ignorance was willful, fed by the arrogance of American physicians and their disrespect for the work of foreign scientists. It resulted in their rejection of modern surgical sterile techniques that had been well-established in Europe.
Sanitation, whose importance rests on the germ theory, was recently voted as the most important public health advance of the last 160 years. The sanitation and sterility blunders of 1880s American medical science were responsible for the unnecessary deaths of Garfield and undoubtedly thousands, if not millions of others.
In 2017, our scientific blunders on the most important public health issue of our time are again poised to lead to catastrophe, but this time the stakes are much higher. And this time, the culprits are not arrogant scientists, but arrogant, unscrupulous and willfully ignorant politicians.
Fossil fuels burned by industrialized civilization have gravely “wounded” the ecosystems necessary for human survival. But the level of scientific sophistication Trump and congressional Republicans are applying to the planetary “fever” and “infection” spreading through our own habitat is on par with 1880s doctors applying hot cow manure to open wounds.
This year, in the middle of February, parts of Oklahoma were scorched with temperatures of nearly 100 degrees. Yet less than one month later, their own senator, notorious climate denier James Inhofe remains undaunted, recently extolling the virtues of Trump’s budgetary extermination of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because that would finally stop the EPA from “brainwashing our kids.” Neither does 100 degree winter temperatures in his home state seem to have precipitated any second thoughts among the new EPA director, Scott Pruitt, who again proudly shared his scientific expertise that CO2 was not a “primary contributor to” global warming.
Like the 1880s, on the most critical public health issue of our time, American doctors have lagged behind our British counterparts. In 2009, the most prominent British medical journal admonished all doctors to call for the public to eat less meat and switch to clean energy in response to the urgency of the climate crisis. “We have a responsibility as health professionals to warn people how bad things are likely to get if we don’t act now.” Other British medical journals called the climate crisis, “The biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” that “will put the lives and well being of billions of people at increased risk.”
Thankfully, American doctors are catching up quickly. On March 15, a new consortium of 11 of the top national medical societies was launched, The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. The groups represent almost half a million doctors, about half of all the doctors in the country. Their mission is to inform the public and policymakers “that climate change threatens the health of every American.”
Climate denial has never had a shred of scientific support. Joseph Fourier discovered the greenhouse effect in 1824. John Tyndall first reliably experimented on it in 1858, and Svante Arrhenius (a Nobel Prize winner) first reported quantitatively on it in 1896. All three were some of the most distinguished scientists of their time. ExxonMobil knew the climate crisis was for real as early as 1977, and of course then proceeded to deny and cover up its own findings.
Internationally, the number of scientific societies endorsing the concept of a primarily human-caused climate crisis is now 198. The number of scientific organizations that dispute this is zero. If you were watching a basketball game where the score was 198 to 0, with one minute left in the fourth quarter, and you decided to bet your entire future on that losing team, you would lose. Trump, Inhofe, Pruitt and virtually all those pulling the levers of power in Congress are betting the future on a hapless team that’s down, late in the game, 198 to 0.
The climate crisis is a public health threat unequaled by anything we have ever faced. But now in full control of the federal government, the Republican Party response is to lay waste to our government’s regulatory bodies, like the EPA, attack our basic scientific institutions, muzzle our scientists and strangle their research — essentially dragging us back to a time before the advent of the scientific method. They have signaled their intent to govern from a scientific platform as removed from reality as the witchcraft of the Dark Ages, to craft public policy with superstition, ideology and conspiracy theories, unrestrained by empiricism, rationality or verifiable truths. The Trump administration wants you to imagine that the greatest threat to the US is “Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.” In fact, the greatest long-term threat to the health and safety of the US and the world is the Republican’s radical anti-science campaign.
Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist and statesman said, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.” On April 22, 2017, Earth Day, tens of thousands of your fellow Americans will no longer quietly submit to the “wrong and injustice” of attacks on science. We will be participating in a “March for Science” to restore science to its proper place in public policy, and to honor intellect, education and critical thinking as essential to making America Great.