By Elizabeth Fee ~
Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.
This sometimes charming, sometimes dreadful little book offers a series of profusely illustrated lessons designed to teach “the young” how to stay healthy amid the many dangers in the tropics. Its intended readership is not native-born children but the offspring of white settlers—military officers, businessmen, colonial officials, and missionaries. Native people, we are told and shown, have a regrettable tendency to live in damp, overcrowded, and unsanitary dwellings in close quarters with domestic animals, rodents, and insects. Their customs and ways of doing things threaten their own health and the health of others. The book’s author, Azel Ames (1845–1908), was well known for his writings on medicine and health. A major in the U.S. Army, he was a veteran of the Civil War and Spanish-American War and later represented the United States Public Health Service in the Philippines as military and civil sanitary inspector and in Puerto Rico as director of vaccination.
Ames begins his book by lecturing on the importance of being well. Sick people cannot work or find pleasure; if a man cannot earn anything for his family, he will be “poor, hungry and wretched.” With good health, however, the same man is likely to be prosperous, contented, and happy. Ames lists the “musts”—the things we must know and must understand and laws we must obey lest we become ill, wretched, and dead.
After this rather terrifying introduction his advice is generally sound. We need to breathe clean air, eat nutritious food, rest and sleep well, and reduce wastes of every kind. At the end of each chapter he poses questions for the reader to answer. The question “What are the air cells in our lungs like?” has two possible right answers: masses of air cells are like “very great bunches of very small grapes”; single air cells, however, are like “small red toy balloons with very thin gutta-percha skins, blown up full of air.”
He often uses colorful metaphors. The body, he says, like a well-kept horse, will repay us well for our good treatment. His advice on nutrition is a mix of the scientific knowledge of the time and a dose of common sense. Ames does not hesitate to disapprove of others’ customs; he frowns on the French habit of having only coffee and bread for breakfast. In parts of the tropics, he says, people eat reptiles such as iguanas, but these are not fit food for decent people. As for clothing, Ames insists that children should wear flannel bands to keep their bowels warm. While native people laugh at the idea of wearing flannel bands around the body, he says, many of their children die.
Ames has a particular horror of “impurities” of every kind and sees their pernicious effects everywhere. These include foul air, vile odors, dirty water, rotting filth, decaying animals and plants, bodily wastes, and dangerous vapors from sewer pipes. These must be countered by the most scrupulous attention to cleanliness. He tries to be cheery and uplifting but mainly depicts the tropics as a disease-plagued environment that poses a grave risk to white children. I feel fortunate to have missed reading this little volume when growing up as a child in British Malaya.
Elizabeth Fee, PhD was Chief of the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine from 1995 to 2011. She taught at Princeton and Johns Hopkins universities and wrote many articles and co-edited many volumes on the history of medicine and public health.