By James Labosier ~
Howard Bishop was confident that he knew what was best for people and that people needed to be told. In the 1940s and 1950s Bishop sent thousands of letters to celebrities, businessmen, politicians, companies of all sorts, and anyone else he identified in the act of encouraging unhealthy habits.
From his own personal experience and training, Bishop had researched and lived the healthier lifestyle he encouraged. Born in 1878, (just over 50 years after the American Temperance Society was founded in 1826) Howard Berkey Bishop spent forty years as an analytical chemist, eventually owning the Sterling Products Company of Easton, Pennsylvania. He believed that three regularly ingested substances were most responsible for human ailments and premature death.
“…as a chemical engineer, I discovered a simple formula for a better way of life that I had successfully used for many years.”
—Howard Bishop to Paul Clifford Smith, August 8, 1956
Bishop broke identified three addictive substances, which he collectively called the hot spots of human destruction. The first is caffeine, which is an addiction developed through coffee, tea, chocolate, and cola drinks. Once one has developed “caffeine encephalitis,” according to Bishop, a person then seeks a relief from this nerve irritation. Nicotine, through smoking, provides the antidote. A nicotine addiction, which he called “toxicomania,” then results, leaving people in a never-ending cycle of caffeine and nicotine. The addition of alcohol generally follows.
In 1939 he retired, sold his company, and a year later founded the Human Engineering Foundation. Through this non-profit institution he devoted the remainder of his life to his cause, which resonates globally today in the World Health Organization’s World No Tobacco Day.
“…helping to save the lives of millions of people who are dying premature deaths on account of the habitual use of various addictives.”
—Howard Bishop to Alden Emery, January 22, 1952
The main problem with this effort was his style of persuasion. Perhaps it resulted from years of giving orders as head of his company or was just the way he personally communicated with everybody, whatever the case, his chosen method for informing and helping people was direct and blunt confrontation.
Bishop pored over newspapers and magazines for photographs and advertisements illustrating the use of the ‘hot spots of human destruction.’ Then he would write to the person or party responsible to inform them that they were hurting mankind.
Celebrities and politicians were regular recipients. To Edward R. Murrow he said, “It has been on my mind for some time to write to you and tell you how ridiculous it appears for a famous man like yourself … to smoke a cigarette on every program…” Baseball commissioner Ford Frick was told that the “…cigarette smoking morons and others are naturally lead to believe that since those famous ballplayers smoke Chesterfield cigarettes it is quite the thing to do.” Winston Churchill received the helpful advice that “…by overcoming the use of tobacco and all caffeine and alcoholic drinks, your mind will be clearer, your health will be better, you will live longer and enjoy life more.” He was particularly aggrieved by advertising companies that showed incidental smoking in ads for other products. One particularly incendiary expression he used in letters to them was: “Josef Stalin must be well pleased with the enclosed advertisements that undermines and pollutes the life blood of our Nation.”
The correspondence in the Howard Bishop papers at the National Library of Medicine shows that, despite Bishop’s tone-deaf style, many correspondents such as hotels and businesses asked for more of his literature and signage to distribute. Many of his letters, preserved as copies in the files, appear to have gone unanswered. A good number of the negative replies fall into three categories: honest reactions to Bishop’s style and purpose, indignation at his presumption, and outright ridicule. Explore examples of these three categories, primarily addressing smoking, below.
James Labosier is Associate Curator for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.