JF Ptak Science Books Post 1524
In the epochal year of 1859 (Darwin's Origin of Species is published) Philip P. Carpenter (1819-1877) contributed a very interesting article to The Canadian Naturalist and Geologist and the Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Montreal (the full article appearing here). Among many things, the intriguing title "On the Value of Human Life in Different Parts of Canada" suggests something that might seem a translucent to the modern reader--that in the statistics, somewhere, is a Bell curve that might establish what the "average" person was. The idea of the "average man"--a statistical impossibility at the time--was important in the sociological application of the statistical work of the early and very influential mathematician Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874, fl. 1840's), whose theorizing underneath his numbers was questionable and wincing, but Mr. Carpenter really doesn't approach this--he has a much more current and applicable idea in mind. He was interested in the positive and major consequences of relatively minor government investment in the health of the population and the upkeep of the basic infrastructure of a city.
In collecting his data on birth/death/mortality rates in some major cities in Canada, Mr. Carpenter undertakes a cost-benefit analysis (of sorts) to show how much it would cost to prevent a certain percentage of those deaths, and that a very small investment in maintaining a city's infrastructure would wind up saving lives and money as a result. It is an elegant, interesting argument.
He points to some statistics for the city of Munchen, establishing that the sewering and cleaning of 20 street there reduced the mortality rate from 31 to 25 per 1000 ("that is, preventing 21 deaths and 588 cases of sickness in seven months"), saving the community the cost of caring for the ill and reducing the amount of time lost in the workplace.
Basically, Carpenter establishes that adding sewers and just simply cleaning the streets--basic sanitary measures--is an economic benefit to the local community, arguing that "as the cost of sanitary measures is generally the greatest obstacle to their adoption, it may be well to inquire whether their neglect is not still more costly". And that it not only made a certain amount of intuitive sense to undertake these measures, Carpenter felt as though he had the numbers (later found to be very problematic) to display how much more "neglect" would cost. For example:
A key and simple element to defining health for Canadian cities was horse manure, which those cities seemed to be awash in Carpenter makes a very simple case for simply using the manure for fertilizer rather than just throwing it into the river, and that the act of cleaning this waste not only was beneficial for the health of the community, but was also had value for cultivation.. This may seem trivial now, but in 1859, evidently, it wasn't an obvious issue. Carpenter concludes:
This was a very satisfying read, and the author made a simple, solid and convincing economic case for "doing the right thing". It would turn out later in the 1860's and 1870's that Carpenter's statistical methods were deeeply flawed, leading to him being abandoned by the association that he helped to create--a bitter pill, to be sure, since the overall conclusions about public health were correct, if not the numbers. After all was said and done, Carpenter was out to save people (particularly the poor), more so than an actuarial table.
An interesting table showing the relative health of the cities in the countryside versus, say, the Gotham of Montreal: