Unmasking Millionaire Superheroes: Edwin Chadwick and Thomas Southwood Smith

Max Roser has created a treasure trove of unique visualizations of data showing what the work of millionaire superheroes has accomplished over the past two centuries at his personal blog, and at his new site, Our World in Data.  The graph that is currently at the top of maxrosser.com shows the dramatic rise of life expectancy around the world:

life expectancy of world population

As my colleague, Ross Kaufman mentioned at the Bluffton University Forum this week, public health efforts are estimated to account for over 80% of the rise in longevity that we see on the above graph.  Edwin Chadwick and Thomas Southwood Smith were early leaders in creating the public health movement. Wikipedia notes that:

Chadwick took up the question of sanitation in conjunction with Dr Thomas Southwood Smith. Their joint efforts produced a salutary improvement in the public health. His report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population (1842) was researched and published at his own expense. …These national and local movements contributed to the passing of the Public Health Act 1848.

Elizabeth Fee & Theodore M. Brown wrote a history of Chadwick’s public health efforts in The Bulletin of the World Health Organization:
Chadwick played the leading role in… arguing that poverty, crime, ill-health and high mortality were all closely associated with the appalling environmental conditions of the industrial cities. He proposed that central government assume basic responsibility for the public health with the creation of a new government department and that, in each locality, a single administrative body be responsible for all water supplies, draining, paving, street cleaning and other necessary sanitary measures.
 These ideas sound boringly obvious today, but it was revolutionary at the time and it took a lot of work by reformers like Chadwick and Brown to convince the public to spend money on basic sanitation and public health.  In those days even street cleaning was a crucial public health issue.  Street cleaning meant shoveling raw garbage and excrement (both human and animal) that was routinely dumped onto the streets before municipal trash collection and modern sewer drains.
Chadwick and Brown’s efforts were motivated by an incorrect theory of disease.  They did not understand germ theory.  Instead, they thought that diseases were caused by miasma (stale or stinky air).  Fortunately, they were scientific enough to notice that getting rid of the sewage that caused miasma also helped eliminate disease, so their theory worked despite being wrong. They were also motivated by utilitarianism which also helped them become superheroes even though it is also an oversimplification that is wrong in many respects.
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Posted in Millionaire Superheroes

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