BY MIKE MAGEE
“This too will pass, honey!” That’s what my mother used to say when any of my eleven brothers and sisters or I seemed to be overwhelmed by whatever. And largely, now, three quarters of a century since my birth, she was mostly right. Whether in personal lives or the life of our nation, over a span of time, the slope has been slight, but upward.
But there are weeks, like this past one, where we are forced to witness the beating death of an innocent 29 year old black man at the hands of police in the very city where Martin Luther King was slaughtered 55 years ago, when it would be easy to lose hope. Why not, as Trumpets actively promote, just lie? Why not create “alternate realities?”
Witness Gov. Ron DeSantis. What he fails to realize, in his attempts to white wash Black History from Florida schools, is that the accurate and full disclosure and discussion of our complicated American history ultimately supports progress and optimism. This is because the record shows that we have the capacity (admittedly in very small steps) to improve ourselves and our ability to manage self-governance.
Science has a long history of opposition to politicians who oppose truth-telling. Louis Pasteur famously urged fellow scientists to “worship the spirit of criticism.” When challenged to provide a rationale for his faith in full disclosure, he replied, because “everything is fallible.”
There was another scientist of the same era who was born with an iron spine and a love for honest learning. Her mother had emigrated from Wales shortly after our Civil War. Born into a farming family on January 29,1881, Alice Evans lived to be 94. Along the way she became the first women scientist to work as a bacteriologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the founding president of the Society of American Bacteriologists (American Society for Microbiology).
Descriptions of her include an “unending intellectual curiosity, independent spirit, and unflinching integrity.” She received her education at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and at the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture. After working on improving the flavor of cheddar cheese for three years, she headed to Washington D.C. to join the new federal Dairy Division. She had applied as A. Evans at the urging of her male mentors knowing the federal government had no taste for female scientists. As she was later quoted, “I was on my way to Washington where I had not wanted to go and where I was not wanted.”
Her new venue was milk, still largely unpasteurized and brimming with a range of organisms from TB to diphtheria, from typhus to strep. Their presence in dairy cows and cattle meant slaughtering a herd. Evans was no friend of the dairy lobbyists. But when she identified the Brucella bacteria as a common agent that caused bovine contagious abortion in animals and undulant fever in humans, she apparently crossed the line. As NIH historians recount, it “set off a firestorm of protest and disbelief by physicians, veterinarians, dairy industry representatives and other scientists” who “scoffed at the idea that the bacteria could cause symptoms in both animals and humans…She endured nonstop scrutiny before becoming vindicated.”
She died in 1975 in her ninth decade, outlasting most of her critics. Today she is remembered in heroic terms, not only for saving countless infants and children from milk borne deadly diseases, but also for being a source of inspiration and paving the way for many female scientists who followed in her wake.
In his Inaugural Address on January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden said, “we must reject a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured…Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart.
The battle is perennial…Victory is never assured.”
Near the end of his address, he asked rhetorically, what were the common objects of love that St. Augustine had suggested unite a multitude. His answer: “Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.”
The truth sometimes hurts. But (as all scientists know) without it, progress is an impossibility.
Mike Magee MD is a Medical Historian and author of CODE BLUE: Inside the Medical-Industrial Complex.