100 Years Later, 1911 Health Problems Still Relevant

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Britain's Lancet medical journal has dug up the editorial the publication ran for the New Year's issue in 1911. A century ago, the editor highlighted cancer, tuberculosis and medical care for the poor as concerns for the British medical profession. Current editor Dr. Bill Summerskill tells Renee Montagne he was able to see how much medicine has advanced since then, including treatment for syphilis.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to a more venerable publication: The British journal Lancet is one of the world's leading medical journals. Its New Years editorial goes back into the archives for a look at the challenges physicians faced exactly a century ago.

The Lancet's executive editor is Dr. Bill Summerskill. Among the concerns he found in the New Year's edition from a hundred years ago: cancer, tuberculosis and health care for those who couldn't afford it.

Dr. BILL SUMMERSKILL (Executive Editor, Lancet): As I looked at the 1911 issue, I was struck. Whereas I'd expected to find that seemed very aged, I actually found an editorial and an entire issue that would have been quite familiar to our readers now, both in terms of its tone and its content. The background situation being 1910, England was going through a difficult time. There was a lot of political uncertainty and a time economic depression.

So there were great concerns amongst those who cared for people what was going to happen to less advantaged people as situations worsened. So that started out by ringing a real bell with me, because those are topics that we worry about today.

MONTAGNE: There's another issue that shows up in the journal itself, and it's a concern that is still with us. And that is the correspondent from New York reporting on a crackdown on trade in rotten eggs. So food safety was on their mind.

Dr. SUMMERSKILL: Yeah. This was another example of things that just don't seem to go away. In New York, rotten eggs were being used to bake cakes. It was very hard to detect, once they'd been used in baking, whether the constituents were healthy or not. So New York City was mounting this big crackdown to get rid of rotten eggs.

And I think you can't help but read that and rejoice at the recent passage through Congress of the new food safety legislation.

MONTAGNE: Was there one thing in this editorial or this issue that brought into stark relief for you how far we've come?

Dr. SUMMERSKILL: There are a few things. In general, the big change is that while this was a delightful read with very eloquent prose, the articles were not scientific to the extent that one would expect today. And so scientific publishing has moved on. We have peer review. We have reporting standards.

And I think a specific example was in 1909, I believe, Paul Ehrlich had introduced Salvarsan, which was the first specific treatment for syphilis. And this marked the dawn of the anti-microbial era. So we see a number of pieces in here about the remarkable treatment effects of Salvarsan on syphilis.

And it's great to see that it does seem archaic, and it gives one a glimmer of hope that perhaps when someone is reading the Lancet in 2111, they might look back, see a reference to HIV and just pause and think: You know, I didn't realize that there was a time when we regarded HIV as such an incurable problem.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Summerskill, thank you very much for joining us.

Dr. SUMMERSKILL: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Bill Summerskill is the executive editor of the medical journal the Lancet. He joined us from the journal's office in London.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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