Social Distancing, Public Health, and the Bible

Social distancing is an important public health measure to slow or stop the spread of many diseases. God’s instructions to the Hebrews in the Bible were primarily for holiness, but also had important health benefits.

I was at the auto parts store last week buying brake pads to replace the old ones in my daughter’s Prius. An elderly woman walked in, donning a mask and gloves, and carefully staying at least six feet away from others. When a clerk approached her and when other customers walked by, she retreated. I walked the long way down a separate aisle to get around her, trying to provide the space that she needed. Given her increased level of risk, and the fact that she didn’t seem grumpy, I appreciated her caution.

Social distancing, putting space between people who may infect each other with a disease, is the major way that individuals and governments throughout the world are trying to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has worked many times in history, such as in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, a far deadlier disaster than the current plague. The nation, and indeed much of the world, has been staying at home, or at least away from others, for over six weeks. Public health experts have used many other interventions for infection control as well. This article will discuss social distancing and other public health actions against infectious disease.

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Early American Medicine

If we lived one or two hundred years ago, many of us would have died long before we reached our current age. Medical knowledge has exploded, and we are the happy beneficiaries. But studying the past still holds clues for the future. 

This summer my family and I explored Fort Ligonier, an eighteenth century British fort in Western Pennsylvania, and the Bushy Run Battlefield, a historic site of the Seven Years War (1756-1763). My children opined about what it must have been like to live in those days. As we looked at the hospital buildings, however, my daughter said “the thing that I would miss the most is 21st century medicine. “

She is not alone. Some people attend Renaissance Fairs and pretend to live in Medieval Europe. Others reenact the Civil War or other major conflicts. No one that I have ever spoken to, however, wants to give up modern medicine. Not that modern medicine is perfect. Too often it is impersonal, profit driven, complicated and expensive. However, compared to much of existed before, it is miraculous. We would do well to remember that, and be thankful for it.

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The Year in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics History

7 Jan – The first trans-Atlantic telephone service, from New York to London, was established (1927).

7 Jan – Japan launched the Sakigake, the first non-US and non-Soviet deep space probe and interplanetary spacecraft (1985).

16 Jan – The Space Shuttle Columbia takes off for mission STS-107 which would be its final one. Columbia disintegrated 16 days later on re-entry (2003).

21 Jan – The first nuclear powered submarine, the USS Nautilus (SSN 571), was launched at Groton, CT (1954).

19 Feb – Thomas Edison patented the phonograph, US Patent 200,521 (1878).

21 Feb – The first steam locomotive self-propelled in Wales at the Pen-y-Darren Ironworks (1804).

4 Mar – The Forth Bridge crossing the Firth of Forth, the longest (until 1917) cantilever bridge in the world (spanning 8,296 feet) opened in Scotland (1890).

8 Mar – The Philips Company first publicly demonstrated the Compact Disc (1979).

10 Mar – The American John Stone patented the pile driver (1792).

10 Mar – The American inventor Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call, saying “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you (1876).”

16 Mar – Gemini VIII completed the first successful docking of two spacecraft while in orbit (1966).

25 Mar – Dutch mathematician, scientist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens discovered Saturn’s largest moon, Titan (1655).

25 Mar – The Oystermouth Railway, now called the Swansea and Mumbles Railway, became the first passenger carrying railway in the world (1807).

25 Mar – The first successful tornado forecast predicted that a tornado would strike Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma (1948).

26 Mar – In Auburn, Massachussets, Robert Goddard launched the first successful liquid fueled rocket (1926).

12 Apr – The Soviet Comonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (1934-1968) became the first human in space and the first to orbit the earth aboard Vostok 3KA-3 (1961).

12 Apr – First launch (STS-1) of the first US Space Shuttle, Columbia, from Cape Canaveral (1981). John W. Young was Mission Commander and Robert L. Crippen was the pilot.

19 Apr – In Springfield, MA, Charles Duryea claimed to the first American to drive a car (1892).

24 Apr – Sigmund Freud published his famous paper, Das Ich und das Es, outlining his concept of the Id, the Ego, and the Super-Ego (1923).

1 May – Swedish Botanist Carl Linnaeus published Plant Taxonomy, thus birthing the field of plant taxonomy (1753).

2 May – The first jet airliner in history, the De Haviland Comet 1, made its maiden voyage from London to Johannesburg (1952).

5 May – Having discovered a better way to weave straw with silk and thread, Mary Kies became the first woman to be awarded a US patent (1809).

21 Aug – William Seward Burroughs patented the first practical adding machine in the United States (1888).

30 Aug – The maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Discovery (STS 41D) began (1984).

31 Aug – The radio station 8MK in Detroit, MI, broadcast the first radio news program (1920).

4 Sep – The first commercial electric power plant in history began operations in New York City, inaugurating the electrical age (1882).

13 Sep – Henry Bliss was the first person in the US killed in an automobile accident (1899).

1 Oct – The Ford Motor Company launched the Model T for $825, making cars available to the middle class and revolutionizing transportation in American (1908).

24 Oct – The first Transcontinental Telegraph was completed with lines from St Louis and Carson City meeting in Salt Lake City and making the Pony Express obsolete (1861).

11 Nov – Searching for a way to find the area under the curve Y=f(x), Gottfried Liebnitz introduced integral calculus (1675).

24 Nov – Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the book that ushered in the Theory of Evolution and gave a biological basis to modern naturalism (1859).

1 Dec – Henry Ford’s Ford Motor Company introduced the moving assembly line, cutting time and costs in producing cars (1913).

13 Dec – Apollo 17 astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan performed the third and final moon walk of the program. As of 2014 they were still the last humans to walk on the moon (1972).

27 Dec – Japan commissioned the first purpose built aircraft carrier in the world, Hōshō (1922).

The Year in Medical History

1 Jan – German scientist William Rontgen announced his discovery of x-rays (1896).

1 Jan – All cigarette packages sold in the US were required to include the US Surgeon General’s warning “Caution: Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health (1966)

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Jonathan Potts – American Revolutionary Physician

Military physicians, just like all soldiers and military officers, should read military history. We will be better if we do.

Napoleon suggested “Read over and over again the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus, Turenne, Eugene and Frederic. … This is the only way to become a great general and master the secrets of the art of war. …” As true as this maxim is for line officers, it is also true for leaders in the Army medical department. By studying the struggles, victories and defeats of our forebears we can better surmount the obstacles we face today.

Dr. Jonathan Potts is a medical officer worth studying. He was born in Popodickon, Pennsylvania in 1747 and, with Dr. Benjamin Rush, attended the famous medical school in Edinburgh, Scotland. He returned to the colonies on learning of the illness of his fiancé, Miss Grace Richardson. Potts married her in May 1767 and completed his Doctor of Medicine at the College of Philadelphia, the first institution to grant medical degrees in America, in 1771. He began a private practice in Reading, PA, but responded to the call of independence, seeking assignment with the Continental Hospital Department, comprised of Northern, Middle and Eastern Departments.

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Texting between Father and Son – The Nature of Causation

How can we know if something causes something else? What is the difference between a sufficient cause, a necessary cause, and a risk factor? How can we avoid traps in understanding causes and non-causes? 

An acquaintance, a devoted Catholic, shared with me a text conversation that he had with his son last weekend.  It caught my attention, so we discussed it at the dinner table at our house Wednesday night.

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Father: R U going to be home to go to 9:30 mass or 1115 or 5PM?

Teenage son: Will’s here, can I just not go this week?

Father: No, that is not an option.  Will can come if he likes.

Son: The Catholic church has survived the ages by creating wars, having corrupt leaders, and blaming our problems on others.  I think that supporting an establishment that has built itself on hypocrisy is something that you shouldn’t encourage me to do.  God can be found in all things, right?  Then why do we bow to marble tables while destroying the world he made with pollution?

Father: I would love to have a philosophical discussion with you on this topic, but texting is not my preferred medium.  In the mean time you will come to mass, not because your presence is something that either God or the Church needs but because 1) it is best for you, and 2) because I am telling you to come.

Son: I’m about to go to a week in the woods!  That’s the holiest thing I can do…Can you pick us up at 11?

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This interaction is interesting on many levels. It demonstrates communication between a father and his son, and suggests real affection and a good relationship between the two. Not knowing the son, it is impossible to know whether he actually believed what he said about the Catholic Church or whether he was simply trying to spend more time with his friend and get out of going to Mass. Perhaps a little of both? For the sake of discussion, let us assume that the boy was at least partly serious about his allegations.

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Science and Christianity

Does real science, not “scientific philosophy,” contradict real Christianity? Since honestly, we know less about science, and about the Bible, than we think we do, humility and inquiry needed to find the answer. 

My sons enjoy playing a computer game called Civilization, in which players take the role of the ruler of a historical civilization such as China, Greece or Rome and try to win by conquering the world, sending a rocket into space, or building the most spectacular culture. There are many cultural advances that a civilization can get, but getting some cultural advances eliminates the ability to get some others. For example, the designers of the game decided that piety and rationalism were mutually exclusive; it is impossible for any civilization in the game to have both.

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