When ideas live too long: coal & syphilis

FOR MORE than a century Western medical science treated patients diagnosed with syphilis by injecting a solution of mercuric chloride into their veins. Medicine had long been fascinated by the uses & effects of mercury, which is, among other things, the most toxic non-radioactive substance on the planet. Doctors had noted that rubbing mercury around the edges of syphilitic chancres seemed to stop the sores from spreading. Hardly surprising, given that it killed all the cells, but no matter. Doctors kept on experimenting, until some bright spark in 1830s Vienna came up with the idea of injecting the stuff.

What followed was the arrival of one of history’s most horrible illnesses, General Paralysis of the Insane (GPI). Nobody was ever cured of the pox, though millions died in agony. GPI was often mistaken for epilepsy, at least in its early stages. Sufferers lost feeling in their extremities, eventually becoming partly or completely paralysed in toes & fingers. Seizures were common, as were tics, tremors, frothing. The mind itself dissolved in a hideous fashion. The weird symbiosis of mercury, blood, the syphilis spirochete & the human brain produced something never seen before, or since.

Once penicillin appeared in the 1930s, GPI numbers began diminishing. By 1950 no new cases were being recorded. Syphilis, which had been the 19th century’s major public health problem, much as malaria was in the century that followed, was being steadily defeated, having been woefully mistreated for 100 years because nobody thought to question established practice. Syphilis was by no means confined to the poorer classes. Among those killed by GPI were Nietzche, Baudelaire, Schubert, the Duke of Clarence, & Randolph Churchill, Winnie’s father. My own grandfather, a Melbourne lawyer who died in 1920, having terrorised his wife & five kids for decades, was a GPI victim, according to his death certificate. We’d always been told in hushed tones that Claude Moody was a violent man who died of the pox, not much more being known about him. It was curiosity about his death that led me into the library to find out what I could about this disease. Half an hour’s research will always trump half a century of gossip, at least in some quarters.

Ideas have their time of being useful, before they are superseded by better ideas. That gloomy old sod in Ecclesiastes had it wrong: there are new things under the sun, human ingenuity & curiosity being what they are. Thus sail gives way to steam; the horse is replaced by the car & the tractor; the piano in the parlour becomes the Victrola, then the radio, finally the TV; the typewriter yields its place to the computer, & so on. Ours is an energetic & restless species, forever thinking up new things to do, & better ways to do them. The only time bad ideas manage to linger (and most would agree mercury was a very, very bad idea) is when people or classes of people have a financial interest in hanging on to them.

The use of coal to generate electric power is in my view one such idea. Coal is organic matter, compacted under colossal pressures over many millions of years. In the process of its formation other materials leach into it. These include metals such as iron, lead, mercury. When you burn coal on a small scale, as our Mesopotamian ancestors did while teaching themselves metallurgy, this may not matter too much. On an industrial scale, it does. Antiquity records no cases of Down’s Syndrome, which earlier times called Mongolism. The first cases noted occur in clusters around four principal locations in mid-19th century England : London, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle. (For some reason our primary school teachers, when they were instructing us about the wonders of the Industrial Revolution, neglected to mention this.) Advocates of unrestricted growth may dismiss facts like these as mere coincidence; modern epidemiology does not. Coal has always been helpful & necessary in small, local usage, but has proved disastrous when burned on a large scale. Coal is good for humanity in much the same way as phythosphora infestans was good for it in 1840s Ireland. A handful of wealthy landowners suddenly found their fields free of people so that they could begin more profitably grazing sheep & cattle. A million Irish men & women died, millions more fled to the New World, but this, in the Conservative view, was a small price to pay.

Australia has sunlight the way the Arabs have sand, or the Canadians water. We should not be burning a single gramme of coal to produce electricity; should in fact have stopped this silly habit decades ago. We have the scientists, we have the manufacturing capacity, we have a huge & growing pool of unemployed needing something useful to do with their lives. Every building in this country should by now be solar-powered. We could also be building up an export market, shipping this technology to parts of the world where electric power could make a huge difference. All it takes is political will & a new degree of honesty among the leaders of the major parties.

Instead, our grandchildren will remember us as those fools who kept pumping poison into the planet’s veins & arteries. Not only to we continue to cling to an idea whose time has long passed, we’re not even very good at it, our electric power being among the developed world’s most expensive. A pox on all their houses!

— d.p. moody


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