There is death in the pot

On the bicentenary of chemist Freidrich Accum, J.D. Dayan and A.D. Dayan discuss how his public-health legacy to expose ‘food adulteration’ has been largely forgotten…

Portrait of chemist Friedrich Accum (1769–1838). Source: Edgar Fahs Smith Collection (P/AC25 M).

The essential importance of using new scientific discoveries in the public interest is a belief that has long been preached, but few have had the drive and understanding to put it into practice.

Some innovators must make great sacrifices in return for ephemeral headlines, whilst others achieve international fame in their lifetime, only to have their names and vital legacies forgotten.

Friedrich Accum is such a scientist, whose contributions to both public and governmental awareness about the extent of food adulteration, its risks to health in the early 19th century and the widespread fraud on consumers have gone tragically neglected, even as we grow ever more concerned about what is in our food.

From Hanover to London

Accum was born on 29th March 1769 in Bückeburg, a small town in the state of Hannover, to a Jewish father who had become a committed Christian[1]. Young Accum’s life was marked by tragedy as his father died when he was only three years old, and his mother was left to raise her large family alone. Instrumental to their fortunes was the family soap business which gave Accum exposure to practical chemistry and no doubt influenced his decision to emigrate to England in 1793 to work for Brande pharmacies in London[2].

By 1800 Accum’s career as a young(ish) scientist was starting to flourish, and he set up a base of operations at 11 Old Compton Street, which he turned into “a unique establishment”[3]. From here Accum took on a diverse range of tasks, from offering commercial chemical analytical services to inventing and producing novel scientific instruments and later offering classes in practical chemistry.

In the early 19th century he became deeply involved in the pioneering installation of gas lighting in London, conducted analyses of natural spring waters and common medicines, as well as acting as an expert witness in legal actions. His frequent scientific work on behalf of the government and growing role as a public intellectual made him nationally known, and he increasingly wrote on matters of general, as well as scientific, interest.

‘A Treatise of Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons’

It was with this background of firmly established respectability that Accum launched into arguably the most important and ultimately most controversial part of his wide-ranging career. Drawing on his scientific abilities as an analyst and his skills as a writer he analysed many samples of the foodstuffs being sold in London, such as bread, milk, flour and sweets and published the findings in his magnum opus, A Treatise of Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons, in 1820, a book better known from its subtitle ‘Death in the Pot’ (II Kings 4:40).

This was not an example of an obscure academic text being amplified into the public consciousness by the excitable media of the day, but rather a skilled scientific communicator and self-publicist scoring a public bullseye with a precisely aimed work. This is exemplified by the biblical quote which Accum deployed, that has since been used as a metonym for the publication itself: “There is death in the pot”.

The core of this explosive work was stated simply by Accum himself at the very beginning when he wrote that he was trying to “exhibit easy methods of detecting the fraudulent adulterations of food, and of other articles, classed either among the necessaries or luxuries of the table; and to put the unwary on their guard against the use of such commodities as are contaminated with substances deleterious to health.”[4]

This was not the first time that Accum had attempted to raise the alarm about poor quality food.  Indeed from almost the start of his time in England he had spoken out against the dangers of adulteration[5], but he now had a firm grasp on its nature and industrial practice.

The reading public agreed, and within a month the entire first print run of 1000 copies had been sold. That did not mean that those who could respond in print accepted his findings and their implications for the health of every consumer and the honesty of manufacturers, importers and retailers.

Critiques and legal issues…

Few of the dissenters refuted his central argument, but some disagreed about the extent of the adulteration crisis, and others believed that his remedy, the deployment of analytical chemistry to detect fraud and dangerous additives, was wildly impractical.

One of the most critical responses appeared in the Quarterly Review which lambasted Accum for being a highly intelligent, snake-oil salesman on the make[6].

Accum’s life after this point is veiled in mystery. What can be said with certainty is that he was accused of having ripped out pages from books in the Royal Institution’s library, and this led to him being embroiled in a series of legal troubles that ended with him jumping bail and returning to Germany.

There he continued writing on the application of analytical chemistry to a diverse range of food related topics, from brewing beer to making bread.

Public opinion appears to have swung quite violently with regards to his guilt, and although his refusal to attend his trial and decision to abscond certainly did his reputation no good, there were nevertheless persistent rumours that he had been framed by those he had accused of introducing ‘Death into the pot’.

Accum’s Legacy?

Whatever the truth of his predilection for page-stealing, there is no doubt that Accum was hugely influential in the rise of campaigning scientists in early 19th century Britain. In many ways Accum’s true successor was Arthur Hill Hassall, the doctor-turned-analyst who, with Henry Letheby, a physician-chemist, acted as chief scientist to the Lancet enquiry in the mid-1800s.

Hassall’s statement in 1855, to the parliamentary committee about the scale of the problem surrounding food adulteration and its significant ‘sanitary bearings’ and possible “remedies for their suppression”, caused such a public outcry that Parliament was no longer able to look the other way on the subject[7].  In 1860 the Act to Prevent the Adulteration of Food and Drink was passed, containing many of Hassall’s suggestions.

From then on, and especially in the era of Gladstonian liberalism, the state would always take a close interest in the quality of food, and the idea of having permanent government chemists review its safety went from a radical novelty to become a standard rule.

What Accum did that was so important was to combine rigorous scientific methods with a pugilistic style and in doing so, whatever his other faults, he helped to pave the path for his intellectual descendants to defend and expand the public good.

Why have we overlooked the bicentenary of Accum’s work when ensuring the quality of foods and medicines has become such an important factor in our lives? It is not too late to celebrate his achievements even if his reputation remains clouded in ignominy.

Words by J. D. Dayan and A.D. Dayan

 

[1] C. A. Browne, ‘Recently Acquired Information concerning Frederick Accum, 1769-1838’, Chymia, Vol. 1, (1948), p.2.

[2] C. A. Browne, ‘The Life and Chemical Services of Frederick Accum’, Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 2 No. 10, (1925), p.833.

[3] R. J. Cole, ‘Friedrich Accum (1769-1838). A biographical study’, Annals of Science, Vol. 7 No. 2, (1951), p.129.

[4] F. Accum, A Treatise of Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons, Project Gutenberg, (2006), p.iii.

[5] C. A. Browne, ‘The Life’, p.1028.

[6] J. Sumner, ‘Retailing Scandal: The Disappearance of Friedrich Accum’, (Re)creating science in nineteenth-century Britain, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, (2007), p.4.

[7] A. Hassall in ‘Adulteration of Food, Drink, And Drugs. Being the Evidence taken before the Parliamentary Committee’, London, (1855), Googlebooks, p.1.

Poems and Pandemics in the Plague Village

Simon Armitage’s newly released poem, ‘Lockdown‘, recalls the Eyam plague of 1665/6, effectively evoking feelings that reverberate in our current situation, and remind us that we are not the first to find ourselves in such a position.

Elizabeth Hancock drags the body of a family member to the Riley graves. She lost her husband and all six children during the outbrak. Illustration from The Brave Men of Eyam by E.N. Hoare published by SPCK, 1881.

In Lockdown, the Poet Laureate touches on some of the most notable features of the story. ‘Thimbles brimmed with vinegar wine’, for example, refers to the practice of Eyam’s residents leaving coins in holes in the rock at the parish boundary. These would be exchanged for vital supplies by the neighbouring villagers, hinting at an understanding of antisepsis not widely acknowledged to be present at that time.

We find new resonance in the story of Emmott Sydall and Rowland Torre, betrothed lovers who found themselves on either side of the cordon sanitaire, seeing each other only from a distance until Emmott failed to appear one day, having tragically succumbed to the plague.

Such stories of ordinary individuals were passed down in the oral tradition, and whilst making it more difficult for historians to corroborate beyond births, marriages and deaths, this adds a somewhat mystical glow to this period.

Indeed, one of the key reasons the Eyam plague may stick in our consciousness more than the countless other local outbreaks of disease over the centuries, is the fascinating cocktail of physical reminders of the plague story around the village, combined with these legends of individual suffering.

Perhaps the Eyam plague is also memorable due to its particularly high death rate. As referenced in the poem, the village tailor received a parcel of cloth from London, believed to contain fleas carrying the plague. Certainly, the tailor’s assistant George Viccars, became the first victim in September 1665.

There was a steady rate of transmission, which slowed over the Winter, but exploded the following Summer, finally petering out in the Autumn of 1666. By then, around one-third of the villagers (260) were dead.

The ‘crisis mortality rate’ in Eyam has been estimated at twice that of the London outbreak, occurring at the same time. Whole families were wiped out, helpless to prevent the rampage of the infection.

Whilst this surge may simply have reflected the exponential nature of the spread within a non-immune population, it has also been suggested that the disease switched from the flea-borne bubonic type to the much more infectious pneumonic transmission.

Rev William Mompesson (right) converses with a parishioner. Illustration from The Brave Men of Eyam by E.N. Hoare published by SPCK, 1881.

Lastly, the image of the Rector, William Mompesson, leading his parishioners in their self-sacrifice, including through the death of his wife, has created a strong narrative of stoical heroism.

This was irresistible, in particular, to the Victorians seeking to retrospectively chronicle the events of 1665/6 with little written information to go on, save a few of Mompesson’s surviving letters.

What now of the plague village? Once again, Eyam is under lockdown. Public gatherings are prohibited, churches and inns are closed, and there is anxiety and uncertainty. On the other hand, supplies from neighbouring villagers have been replaced by those from supermarket delivery vehicles, and the Priests making the decisions, by Public Health officials.

Nevertheless, the community spirit has kicked in with local support schemes in operation, and, spontaneously, numerous villagers have remarked on the renewed empathy they have for their 17th century counterparts.

‘Plague Sunday’, which is celebrated in the village on the last Sunday of August, will certainly have added poignancy this year. Indeed, the Plague Sunday procession ends at Cucklet Delph, a natural amphitheatre used by Mompesson to address the village rather than cram everyone into the church.

This year, using this venue may well once again be for the reason of public safety rather than historical re-enactment.

Words by Dr William Parker, Eyam, Derbyshire

 

Sources/Further Reading

Clifford J (1989). Eyam Plague 1665-1666, self-published.

Mead R (1720) A Discourse on the Plague, Miller & Brindley. Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/32171/32171-h/32171-h.htm

Massad E et al (2004) The Eyam plague revisited: did the village isolation change transmission from fleas to pulmonary? Med Hypotheses 63:911-5.

Race P (1995) Some further consideration on the plague in Eyam, 1665/6. Available at http://www.localpopulationstudies.org.uk/PDF/LPS54/LPS54_1995_56-65.pdf

Wallis P (2005) A Dreadful Heritage: Interpreting Epidemic Disease at Eyam, 1666-2000. Available at http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/22546/1/0205Wallis.pdf

Wood W (1842). The History and Antiquities of Eyam, Whitaker & Company.

Herd Immunity – what’s in a name?

“Herd immunity” recently made a controversial appearance in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic. What does the phrase mean, where did it come from, and how helpful is it today?

As of March 2020, the OED defines it as, “resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population that results if a sufficiently high proportion of individuals are immune to the disease, typically as a result of having been vaccinated against it”.

The earliest use of the phrase can be traced to a 1917 report from the US Bureau of Animal Industry that dealt with a cattle infection causing death of unborn calves. A cow that had aborted was likely to become immune, and calves born and raised in such an affected herd were tolerant to the disease. The authors concluded that “a herd immunity seems to have developed as the result of both keeping the aborting cows and raising the calves”.

However, the senior author, Dr Adolph Eichhorn, Chief of the Pathological Division, made no reference to herd immunity in a monograph to which he contributed a major section on biological therapeutics just two years later. His biologically apt coinage does seem to have been picked up in US agricultural circles, but it was not universally adopted, with “immunity of the herd” being used instead.

The concept of herd immunity next appeared in British bacteriologist William Topley’s epidemiological studies of bacterial infection, which examined the resistance of a population of mice after immunising animals with suspensions of bacteria. He used “herd-resistance” to describe the natural resistance of individuals within a population. And he discussed the implications of his work with the “mouse herd” for the “human herd”.

The human herd entered this experimental realm at about the same time. In 1922, Surgeon-Commander Sheldon Dudley studied a diphtheria epidemic at Greenwich Hospital School. He found that the longer boys had been resident the greater the proportion who were immune, and that increases in immunity correlated with each outbreak. He extended such studies to other infectious diseases and used herd immunity to explain his findings.

In 1928, all boys in the school were actively immunised against diphtheria. The most senior became immune (Schick-test negative) twice as quickly as the most junior, suggesting prior exposure to the disease (see Figure). These results paralleled earlier work in animals, except for the fact that “a herd of human boys were used in lieu of the guinea-pigs”.

Dudley was unapologetic for using the prefix herd to denote the properties of a community, pointing out that psychologists had earlier popularized the phrase “herd instinct”. Besides, on evolutionary grounds, there was “little fundamental difference between a herd of deer, a herd of swine, and a herd of Homo sapiens”.

Notions of herd immunity have become more sophisticated in recent decades owing to the increased importance of vaccination. Today’s NHS website defines the benefits thus: “If enough people are vaccinated, it’s harder for the disease to spread to those people who cannot have vaccines. For example, people who are ill or have a weakened immune system”.

The reader is also directed to more information and an animation on the website of the Oxford Vaccine Group’s Vaccine Knowledge Project . This site suggests that a better name for herd immunity is “herd protection” because it helps to protect those especially vulnerable to infectious diseases. “Community immunity” appears as an alternative.

Conveying the value of herd protection or community immunity to the public will be critical in successful vaccination against COVID-19. One must worry that the lazy use of a century-old phraseology rooted in the farm, mouse lab and human guinea-pigs, as well as a contemporary profusion of alternative terms, may prove more of a hindrance than a help.

 

Words by Edward Wawrzynczak

 

Sources used:

  1. Horton, R. (2020) Offline: COVID-19 – a reckoning. Lancet, 395, 935.
  2. https://public.oed.com/updates/new-words-list-march-2020/.
  3. Eichhorn, A. & Potter, G.M. Contagious Abortion of Cattle. In: Farmer’s Bulletin 790, Washington DC: United States Department of Agriculture, 1917.
  4. Winslow, K. & Eichhorn, A. Veterinary Materia Medica and Therapeutics, Eighth Edition. Chicago: American Veterinary Publishing Co, 1919, pp.525-563.
  5. Beechy, L.P. (1920) Abortion disease in cattle. Bulletin of the Ohio State University Agricultural College Extension Service. Vol. XVI, No. 1.
  6. Smith, T., Little Further studies on the etiological role of Vibrio fetus. J Exp Med, 32, 683-689, R.B. &Taylor, M.S. (1920).
  7. Topley, W.W.C. & Wilson, G.S. (1923) The spread of bacterial infection. The problem of herd-immunity. J Hyg, 21, 243-9.
  8. Topley, W.W.C. Wilson, J. & Lewis, E.R. (1925) Immunisation and selection as factors in herd-resistance. J Hyg, 23, 421-436.
  9. Greenwood, M. & Topley, W.W.C. (1925) A further contribution to the experimental study of epidemiology. J Hyg, 24, 45-110.
  10. Dudley, S.F. (1922) The relation of natural diphtheria antitoxin in the blood of man to previous infection with diphtheria bacilli. Brit J Exp Pathol, 3, 204-209.
  11. Dudley, S.F. The Spread of Droplet Infection in Semi-isolated Communities. Medical Research Council, Special Report Series, No.111, London: HMSO, 1926.
  12. Anon. (1927) The spread of infection in schools and ships. BMJ, 1(3443), 34, 1 Jan.
  13. Dudley, S.F. (1928) Natural and artificial stimuli in the production of human diphtheria antitoxin. Brit J Exp Pathol, 9, 290-298.
  14. Dudley, S.F. (1929) Herds and individuals. J R Army Med Corps, 53, 9-25.
  15. Fine, P., Eames, K. & Heymann, D.L. (2011) “Herd immunity”: a rough guide. Clin Infect Dis, 52, 911-916.
  16. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/why-vaccination-is-safe-and-important/.
  17. https://vk.ovg.ox.ac.uk/vk/herd-immunity.
  18. Betsch, C. et al. (2017) On the benefits of explaining herd immunity in vaccine advocacy. Nat Hum Behav, 1, 0056.
  19. Hakim, H. et al. (2019) Interventions to help people understand community immunity: a systematic review. Vaccine, 37, 235-247.

Tuberculosis, Philately and the history of the ‘Christmas seal’

Paris: Comité National de Défense contre la Tuberculose; Quimper: Comité d’Hygiène Sociale du Finistère, [between 1930 and 1939?]. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, CC BY.

Christmas has long been recognised as a time of charity and fundraising. Perhaps familiar to some is the ‘Christmas seal’ – a label placed on post over the Christmas period – to raise awareness and funds for charitable organisations.

Christmas seals fall into a category known as ‘cinderella stamps’: items that resemble stamps but cannot be used in payment for postage

While the Christmas seal concept has been adopted to raise funds for many different types of charitable organisations, they have most closely been allied to raising awareness of tuberculosis. According to a New York Times article, the concept originated in Denmark in 1904, when a Danish postal worker called Einar Holbøll came up with the idea to sell the penny seals to raise money for children with tuberculosis.

Other countries quickly followed suit with fundraising seals being produced to support tuberculosis causes in Sweden, Iceland and Argentina.

At the time, tuberculosis was still one of the major causes of death globally. And despite the discovery of the M. tuberculosis bacillus by Robert Koch in 1882, no effective treatment had been found. Organised national efforts to combat the disease were looking for means to raise awareness and financial support for the disease. These campaigns can be seen as some of the very first public health initiatives, in which the financial contributions of ordinary people were used to fund treatment of a disease.

Picture credit: W. Dibb Private Collection.

The first American Christmas seals were produced in 1907 by a Red Cross volunteer called Emily Bissell, who adopted the idea to help raise money for a tuberculosis sanatorium in Delaware that was under the threat of closure if a sum of $300 was not raised.

Although she could not get permission to have the U.S. national postal service to print and distribute the seals, as they had in Denmark, she was allowed to privately sell the seals in the post office lobbies. The seals were such a success they raised over ten times the amount needed and became an annual tradition that raised major funds for The National Tuberculosis Association (now known as the ‘American Lung Association’). The American Lung Association continues to sell their Christmas Seals™. Selling tuberculosis Christmas seals has also funded major disease prevention programmes in countries, such as Canada, through chest X-ray screening or tuberculin tests.

The Cross of Lorraine

National Tuberculosis Association, 1940. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, CC BY.

Many examples of the Christmas seals created to raise funds for tuberculosis charities contain the symbol of the double-barred cross. Symbolically known as the ‘Cross of Lorraine’, it was adopted as the symbol of the fight against tuberculosis at the International Conference on tuberculosis held in Berlin, 1902.

A French doctor – Gilbert Sersiron – proposed the emblem which had been the banner of Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the leaders of the first Crusades who successfully laid siege to Jerusalem and became it first ruler. In adopting this Crusader symbol, the cross became a symbol of the new, organised anti-tuberculosis ‘crusade’.

 

Flora Malein

 

 

 

 

 

You can read more about postal items and infectious disease in a previous post, here

Sources used:

The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1989/12/24/style/pastimes-stamps.html

The American Lung Association: https://www.lung.org/get-involved/ways-to-give/christmas-seals/history.html

The Canadian Lung Association: https://web.archive.org/web/20111115234620/http://lung.ca/involved-impliquez/christmas-noel/history-histoire/index_e.php

TB Alert: https://web.archive.org/web/20090302074617/http://www.tbalert.org/about/cross.php

John, Simon (2017). Godfrey of Bouillon: Duke of Lower Lotharingia, Ruler of Latin Jerusalem, c.1060-1100. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-317-126300.

https://wellcomecollection.org/works/msbjucxs

https://wellcomecollection.org/works/hdh9a7xw