Tuberculosis - A Disease of Modern Living. Weston Price on the Isle of Lewis
Modern health care claims the eradication of tuberculosis in the West through anti-biotics as one of its greatest triumphs. But the truth is TB only AROSE as a major killer under Modern conditions, with the destruction of traditional forms of living, including the dietary patterns that had served people well for generations. Modernity’s achievements in public health need to be set against this background, namely that for the most part the problems it has solved were OF ITS OWN MAKING. TB is no exception.
In researching his classic work, ‘Nutrition and Physical Degeneration’, Weston A. Price visited the island of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland, at that time predominately Gaelic speaking, and only partially exposed to the ‘civilised’ lifestyle of the mainland. Price’s interest was mostly in the dental health of islanders, and how this declined drastically with the introduction of a Modern diet. In passing, however, he also made some interesting observations on the spread of tuberculosis among the population, previously unheard of, and how this was also directly related to diet and way of life. Price reported,
‘One of the sad stories of the Isle of Lewis has to do with the recent rapid progress of the white plague. The younger generation of the modernized part of the Isle of Lewis is not showing the same resistance to tuberculosis as their ancestors. Indeed a special hospital has been built at Stornoway for the rapidly increasing number of tubercular patients, particularly for girls between twenty and thirty years of age. The superintendent told me with deep concern of the rapidity with which this menace is growing. Apparently very little consideration was being given to the change in nutrition as a possible explanation for the failure of this generation to show the defence of previous generations against pulmonary tuberculosis.’
Instead, government officials put the blame for the spread of TB on the crofters’ houses ‘it being thought that the thatched-roof house with its smoke-laden air was an important contributing factor’. There was an obvious flaw in this logic, ‘notwithstanding the fact that former generations had been free from the disease’. And yet they persisted, an example of Modern arrogance and stupidity. The result was, ‘I was told that the incidence of tuberculosis was frequently the same in the modern homes as it was in the thatched-roof homes.’
Islanders were enticed and bullied into newly built homes, without thatched roofs. The problem was that the thatch, after absorbing smoke for twelve months, was a rich source of fertiliser for the oat growing fields. Removing it threatened the viability of farming on what was already marginal land, but on which this hardy people had been able to eke out a good living for thousands of years.
Price then goes on to contrast the health of those on Lewis still living according to traditional ways, and those in the town of Stornoway and elsewhere who had made the transition to a Modern diet of white bread, jam, canned vegetables and fruit juices. His main focus was on tooth decay, and also on the formation of the jaw, the most noticeable differences between the two groups, but he also described those in the former as, ‘the people of early Scotch descent who possess a physique that rivals that found in almost any place in the world.’ Think Highlander, the image that goes with the stereotype, it didn't come from nowhere.
One of the most powerful impressions Price’s work makes, as do other accounts of the encounters between traditional peoples and the Modern world, is of the destructive impact ‘civilisation’ has on the health, strength and vitality on such people. Modernity is utterly corrosive, this is the only word to describe it, and its corrosive effect could be seen within individual families,
‘We found a family on the opposite coast of the island where the two boys shown in the upper half of Fig. 6 resided. One had excellent teeth and the other had rampant caries. These boys were brothers eating at the same table. The older boy, with excellent teeth, was still enjoying primitive food of oatmeal and oatcake and sea foods with some limited dairy products. The younger boy, seen to the left, had extensive tooth decay. Many teeth were missing including two in the front. He insisted on having white bread, jam, highly sweetened coffee and also sweet chocolates. His father told me with deep concern how difficult it was for this boy to get up in the morning and go to work.’
(Price’s book contains photos of the boys)
One of the questions this poses is – why does Modernity have such a destructive, or in Price’s words, ‘degenerative’ effect. My response is this – it is because Modernity makes life EASY, it prizes an easy way of life, pleasurable, comfortable, and lazy.
So once again we are on the ground of ethics, what is our conception of the good life ? By what standard do we measure a way of life ? My answer to this is – BY THE QUALITY OF THE PEOPLE IT PRODUCES. This is a Spartan mentality, a Stoic one, and also one our Gaelic speaking islanders would recognise, but it also runs counter to the entire thinking that runs through our Modern times.
What Modernity offers is ease of life, comfort, safety, and it produces a certain kind of people. These people enjoy the benefits of any number of pleasures our Modern world provides for them to consume, but it also makes them fat, sick, weak, stupid, and often infertile.
I think many of the problems indigenous peoples face around the world today, including in Australia, is that their ways of life have been totally undermined – by comfort. Why go walkabout for weeks through the desert if you can hop in an air conditioned 4WD and get there in a few hours ? But the whole point about walkabout is NOT the getting there, but the journey, in this case out in the hot sun, with little water to be found, and food that has to be caught, through skill and effort. It is the ability not only to survive under such conditions, but to THRIVE, to overcome adversity, and celebrate that ability. This is the wellspring of any vibrant culture, and it runs entirely counter to our Modern spirit, one that lacks either culture or spirit in the true senses of the word.
So, fish and oatmeal, or bread and jam ? Is a metaphor for the choice we all face.
I say fish, you make your own decision.
Weston A. Price’s book is available online for free download. Unfortunately this version does not have page numbers but the material cited above is from chapter 4, ‘Isolated and Modern Gaelics’.