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100 objects that shaped public health

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2016

From the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins comes this list of 100 things that have “made their mark on public health”, good and bad. Here’s a sampling of the objects:

Horseshoe crab. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the helmet-shaped horseshoe crab, whose ancestors date back 450 million years. From vaccines to needles to pacemakers, any IV drug or medical equipment that will come in contact with the human body must first be safety-checked using a test that comes from a clotting compound in the crab’s blood. This compound can detect even the smallest amount of deadly bacteria and is sensitive enough to isolate a threat equivalent to the size of a grain of sand in a swimming pool.

Vaccines. Immunization is one of the most important public health achievements in human history. Vaccines helped eradicate smallpox globally and eliminate polio in the United States. The introduction of effective vaccines has also drastically reduced deaths from measles, diphtheria, rubella, pertussis (“whooping cough”) and other diseases that sickened hundreds of thousands of Americans in the early 20th century.

American Cheese. Food processing was actually developed to make food safer. Milk is pasteurized to kill harmful organisms, and canning and freezing foods such as meats, fruits and vegetables helps them last longer. But the food industry has taken processing well beyond these early origins. Often, to extend a food’s shelf life, manufacturers increase fats, sugars, and salt and add in chemical flavorings, emulsifiers, and other additives — taking foods that could have been healthy and making them much less so.

Pap smear. Since its introduction in 1955, the Pap smear has reduced death from cervical cancer by more than 60 percent. Invented by Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou, the Pap smear is a diagnostic procedure in which a health-care professional swabs a cell sample from the cervix and sends it to a lab to see if any of the cells are malignant. Before the invention of the Pap smear, cervical cancer was one of the leading causes of death for women of childbearing age in the United States. Today, it comes in at number 14 on the list of cancers found in women.

Spittoons. Spittoons were developed centuries ago as receptacles for spitting — think ashtrays for saliva. These brass or even porcelain repositories were everywhere: In homes, train stations, saloons and even the U.S. Congress. They were meant for men to dispose their chewing tobacco and the abundant phlegm that accompanied the habit. Convenience turned to concern in the late 19th century when a global tuberculosis epidemic took hold and scientists realized that spittoons might actually spread diseases. Some argued that when people spat in the general direction of a spittoon and missed the target, they caused a greater health threat than if the spittoon hadn’t been there at all.

Vaccines. And now my kids don’t die.