From the Cutting Room Floor of Exploring American Healthcare in 50 Historic Treasures

 Today, I want to share with you a few of my absolute favorite facts that didn't make it into the book. They're favorites mostly because I found them surprising when I learned them, and they were the very last pieces of information I removed from my manuscript as I edited it down to length.

  • From the "not a favorite because this was in any way good, just interesting" files:  In the Cold War, some doctors argued civilians should be tattooed with their blood type in case an atomic bombing increased the need for blood transfusion, and a few places even began to pilot this idea.

  • From the same files: In the eighteenth century, “climbing boys” apprenticed to chimney sweeps used their bodies to loosen soot. If a boy got stuck in a chimney, his master might poke and prod him with pins to make him wriggle loose, or even light a small fire below him.

A block print of several rooftops and billowing chimneys, a chimney sweep, and what appears to be a witch on a broom.
Image from Phillips's American Chimney Sweeps

  • While working on methods to cultivate penicillin from penicillium mold during WWII, European researchers discovered that penicillin grew better and faster in the United States. This was because of the high nitrogen content in a quintessentially American product, corn, which the Illinois lab used in its nutrient broth.

  • In the same era, one of the factors that led to the creation of an employee healthcare plan at the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California (the plan which would become Kaiser Permanente) was the influx of shipyard employees who had yet to build the strength and the safety skills to do their jobs well. The higher rate of accidents because of the newcomers to the trade meant healthcare was particularly important.

  • In the chapter about “health corsets” I briefly discuss medical and scientific understandings of physical sex in the 19th and early twentieth centuries. Until the early eighteenth century, Western scientists believed that female sexual and reproductive organs were essentially male organs turned to the inside of the body.

  • One of the reasons “health corsets” came into being was the fad of “tight-lacing” a corset, meaning pulling it tighter than it was designed to be pulled, creating extreme compression. I had known that corset shapes and styles had varied widely over the centuries that they were staple undergarments, but I had a vague notion that they had always been pulled very tight. As I learned, this was only possible beginning in the 1820s, when corset laces were first threaded through metal eyelets, rather than the old, more flexible and tear-able stitched eyelets.

Recommended reading:

Robert Bud, Penicillin: Triumph and Tragedy (Oxford University Press, 2009).

George Lewis Phillips, American Chimney Sweeps: An Historical Account of a Once Important Trade (Past Times Press, 1957).

Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 2003).