Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Meredith F. Small's "Inventing the World"

Meredith F. Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University and the author of Our Babies, Ourselves; What's Love Got to Do with It?; and Female Choices. She writes frequently for Natural History Magazine, Discover, Scientific American, and is a commentator for National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

Small applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Inventing the World: Venice and the Transformation of Western Civilization, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Inventing the World; Venice and the Transformation of Western Culture is a great touchstone for the book because it presents several ideas that were invented in Venice that remain critical today. The very thesis of the book is that my list of over 200 Venetian discoveries (objects as well as ideas) have shaped the modern equivalent, so it’s not a surprise that page 99 sports one or two of those.

Looking at page 99 is also fun because it happens to land in the middle of the chapter “The Art of Medicine and the Idea of Public Health.” What could possibly be more relevant today than that? The page begins:
Although many believe that Louis Pasteur, and somewhat later Robert Koch, were the first to understand that small particles we now colloquially call “germs” were responsible for spreading many diseases, these men were certainly not the first to think about contagion. In 1362 Ibn al-Kathib, an Arab intellectual and physician, wrote about contagion after seeing what plague had done. He pinned it to goods and ships coming into foreign ports and commented on the fact that not everyone died, only some and that suggested the possibility of immunity. His thinking was heretical at that time, especially in Muslim culture. And long before Pasteur, Padua professor and anatomist Girolamo Fracastoro proposed in his book De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis (1546) that disease as passed along by tiny particles. He called them fomites, a word that has been translated from the Latin as “spores” but actually means “tinder,” as in to make a fire, and that’s what Fracastoro meant—these fomites started the raging fire of infection. He also made the enlightening suggestions that these spores could move from person to person in bodily fluids, they could survive for a very long time, and while the spores themselves were not infected, they were the causal factor of an infection.
Fracastoro came to this conclusion after many years of studying syphilis, which was rampant in Europe at the time. He was also the first person to suggest mercury as a cure for syphilis; he ran various controlled studies using mercury to prove his point. Fracastoro was also the first person to describe typhus, a pandemic. Fracastoro was a professor at the University of Padua which was part of the Venetian Republic and considered the intellectual heart of Venice.

Two pages later in the chapter, I describe how Venetians invented quarantine in 1348, but on page 99, I make the point that the government was clearly attuned to the contagious nature of plague. Although they didn’t have evidence, they were able to figure it out because of the economic foundation of the city. By the 14th century, Venice was an established trading nation building its wealth as boats came and went into the Venetian lagoon. The city also attracted foreign traders who acted as middlemen for their countries. Venice was and still is a very cosmopolitan place attracting people and contagion from all over.

Venice also had the advantage of a government that was more egalitarian than others during that time although aristocrats eventually outweighed commoners in their power. But even so, the city was run by committees always worried about corruption, and policies were aimed at protecting the collective rather than self-interest. And so, they instituted a 40 day (quaranta in Italian and Veneziano, the language of Venice) isolation period against people and their goods to protect against an unseeable threat, just as we do today.
Visit Meredith F. Small's website.

--Marshal Zeringue