History of Public Health - Part One

Written by PP Rega

Saturday, 8 January 2011

image for History of Public Health - Part One

Scene: Stage is dark. Downstage is a large round table barely seen in the darkness. Suddenly a spotlight is on a person sitting at the table. Gradually, the set becomes more illuminated.

Charlie (to the audience): Good evening. Inspector Henri Rochard has had a long and distinguished career in Interpol. During his tenure, he has successfully apprehended drug traffickers, pornographers, and terrorists. Recently, however, he had been given a rather unique challenge. You may recall the 1991 discovery of Oetzi, a prehistoric hunter, whose body was frozen in a glacier for over 5,000 years. Inspector Rochard, it's good to have you here. Welcome.

Rochard: Thank you for having me, Charlie.

Charlie: You're welcome. Give me a little background on all this, if you don't mind. And how you got involved with Oetzi.

Rochard: On December 6, 1991 at 0924 Greenwich Mean Time, a well-preserved body of a man believed to be more than 5,000 years old was discovered by hikers on a glacier along the Italian-Austrian border. Scientists, over the years, have been able to glean a plethora of data from his remains such as lifestyle, diet, and the like. However, there was one piece of information that eluded the experts.

Charlie: And that was…?

Rochard: How did he die? What killed him? Was it a fall? Disease? Natural causes?

Charlie: And so they came to you.

Rochard: Interpol.

Charlie: To Interpol. To you really. Your modesty becomes you.

Rochard: All humility aside, Charlie, it did require a crack team of forensic specialists and Interpol has many resources that are beyond the ken of the traditional sciences.

Charlie: And what did you discover, Inspector?

Rochard: That he was killed by a single arrow wound to the back. It tore a hole in an artery beneath his left collarbone which led to massive loss of blood, shock and, ultimately, his demise.

Charlie: So you discovered the "how". Then you had to come up with the "why".

Rochard: That was a smidge more difficult, but what it finally boiled down to was good, old fashion police work and, in that, Interpol is without peer.

Charlie: How did you proceed then, Inspector?

Rochard: Good old shoe leather. We tracked, accumulated, and interwove pieces of arcane historical documents, legends, and oral tradition from across Europe and the Middle East. The material spanned centuries. And much like a jigsaw puzzle, we pieced all this together until we came up with a final analysis.

Charlie: Could you give us a sense of what kind of material you discovered that helped resolve the situation?

Rochard: It's too extensive to enumerate but to give you some idea, we found valuable information hidden among the Druid petroglyphs on the Cliffs of Moher, the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, certain hieroglyphics buried beneath a 7-11 store on the Giza plateau, and even the billets-doux of Clara Petacci and Neville Chamberlain.

Charlie: Billets-doux? You mean love letters?

Rochard: Yes, I do.

Charlie: Between Clara Petacci, Mussolini's mistress and Neville Chamberlain?

Rochard: That's correct. Had only Benito known, history might have taken a different course.

Charlie: Goodness! Well, that's fodder for an entirely different show.

Rochard: Yes, I would imagine.

Charlie: Well, getting back to this story…What did all these sources collectively tell you about Oetzi's death?

Rochard: Bobh.

Charlie: Bob?

Rochard: No, Bobh. The 5000-year-old man we've called Oetzi, we've discovered was actually named "Bobh." Pronounced "Bob-huh."

Charlie: Bob-ha

Rochard: Close. You say "Bob-huh" with the accent on the "huh."

Charlie: OK, so why was he killed?

Rochard: He was executed.

Charlie: Executed?

Rochard: Yes, Charlie. You see, he was deemed to be a public health threat.

Charlie: He had some disease?

Rochard: In a manner of speaking, yes.

Charlie: What did he have? Tuberculosis? Smallpox?

Rochard: Athlete's foot.

Charlie: Athlete's foot!? He was executed because he has athletes' foot?

Rochard: You must understand that in those days, athlete's foot was completely unknown. There were no athletes. These people weren't playing any sports. They spent their time foraging for food and avoiding mastodons and saber-tooth tigers. So, when Bobh was seen by his fellow villagers walking around with this curious growth on his feet, it caught their attention.

Charlie: And that's when they killed him?

Rochard: Oh no, Charlie. Not at all. You give them too little credit. Even at that time there was a certain level of civility. Bobh, from what we can tell from the Petacci-
Chamberlain letters, seemed to be a very responsible chap. He went to his village elders and they worked out a process so that he could avoid cross-infecting his neighbors.

Charlie: And what was that?

Rochard: A type of voluntary isolation as best as we can tell. He moved his hut beyond the village perimeter.

Charlie: Forgive me for interrupting, but where was his village?

Rochard: Somewhere in the Ticino area of Switzerland.

Charlie: OK. Then what?

Rochard: Then every time he would move about, he would announce himself by percussing the bloated remains of a prehistoric beaver carcass. Actually, according to the 7-11 hieroglyphics, Bobh may have unintentionally become the "Father of the Big Bass Drum."

Charlie: So, when his neighbors heard him approaching, they would afford him a wide birth.

Rochard: Exactly. This process seemed to work for all concerned while he tried roots and berries and other old wives' tales to salvage his feet from the fungus. Unfortunately for him, since the birth of man was just a short while earlier, there weren't too many old wives' tales to help him.

Charlie: Not to mention old wives, huh? I mean, at that time, the average life span had to be about 20-30 years of age. So how many old wives were out there in the first place?

Rochard: Good point. Anyway, Bobh was kept in isolation and his village was essentially quarantined.

Charlie: Then, pretty much a sort of equilibrium existed in the village.

Rochard: Well, not altogether, no. You see, Charlie, his hunting days were over. No prehistoric game was going to hang around while Bobh was banging his carcass everywhere he went.

Charlie: I can see where that could be a problem.

Rochard: Indeed it was. He lost weight and struggled. But as it is sometimes the case, necessity becomes the mother of invention.

Charlie: How's that?

Rochard: Bobh's neighbors would try to help him, notwithstanding his albatross-around-the-neck status. They would hurl his way anything they thought he could use to get rid of the disease. By this time, reports indicate the disease was up to his ankles. Anyway, they threw all sorts of organic material at him that they had no use for.

Charlie: So what happened?

Rochard: When he applied their refuse on his feet, there was no improvement. Therefore, his only other option was to eat it. He had little choice. Not able to hunt, hungry, etc.

Charlie: Then what?

Rochard: A funny thing happened. He grew fat off the stuff. Our best estimates are that was how man began to eat foodstuffs such as tomatoes, avocadoes, and turnips. The villagers saw Bobh thrive and so they began eating this material too and improved their own diet. So, it seems we owe Bobh a certain indebtedness.

Charlie: So, what made everything turn against him?

Rochard: The same old story, Charlie. Cerchez la femme. It seems that Bobh had a fiancée on the Austrian side of the Alps. As nature would have it, even in those days, love trumped prudence. He wanted to leave his village and go to her to be married.

Charlie: I'm sure the villagers would have been happy to see him leave.

Rochard: They were ecstatic. His drumming kept them up all hours of the night. He was an insomniac, you know. However, word got back to the High Priestess of Public Health.

Charlie: There was a High Priestess of Public Health somewhere?

Rochard: Oh yes, bureaucracy was in place early in man's history.

Charlie: Where was she located?

Rochard: Somewhere near present-day Geneva, we think. She had her temple there… to the God of Health & Sanitation, Who.

Charlie: Who?

Rochard: Exactly.

Charlie: To the god, Exactly?

Rochard: No, Who, Charlie. Now, may we desist with the Abbott and Costello routine?

Charlie: Alright, Inspector. Couldn't pass it up, though. Anyway, how did she…we have her name too?

Rochard: We've discovered her name all over the place. Gbrdng. Seems to have been very important, very influential…at least later in her career.

Charlie: Gbrdng. OK. So how did Gbrdng learn about this all the way in Geneva?

Rochard: Her god was a poor god and so, she had to rely on her personal initiative. She developed a network of stoolies who communicated by carrier pigeons. They're extinct now, but they were fantastic birds at one time. Anyway, when she received news Bobh was coming out of isolation, she "carrier-pigeoned" a proclamation forbidding his travel.

Charlie: Why?

Rochard: That was her duty as High Priestess. To protect the health and well-being of humanity.

Charlie: Oh, come on now.

Rochard: That was a huge responsibility when you consider that, at that time, humanity consisted of only 50,000 or 60,000 people. She was concerned that this new disease could be a major threat to public health and she had to take swift action.

Charlie: So, Bob-huh would have none of it?

Rochard: From what we can gather, Bobh was a law-abiding individual which wasn't too unusual given the lack of many laws in the first place. Anyway, he and his lawyer, when they read the ban, tried to work out some sort of compromise.

Charlie: His lawyer? There were lawyers then?

Rochard: Yes, indeed. They evolved sometime between slugs and cockroaches. Not sure if it was a direct line, however. Anyway, the Grbrdng went all the way to Bobh's village…isolation, you know…to reiterate her position. Naturally, she stayed a couple of blocks away but within line-of-sight.

Charlie: What did Bob-huh…and his lawyer…say then?

Rochard: They tried to come up with some compromise solution. Bobh would take less traveled back roads over the Alps, for example. He would even cover his feet with animal fur so that he couldn't spread the disease. But Grbrdng would have none of it. Had she gone along with the second idea, Bobh would have been the inventor of shoes. Better that that, he would have been alive.

Charlie: Obviously, that didn't happen.

Rochard: No, unfortunately for Bobh. Deception now became the order of the day. He and his lawyer feigned disappointment and he agreed to remain in the village. That night, however, Bobh snuck out of his hut and made for the Alpine foothills. Grbrdng spotted him during her watch…

Charlie: She went all the way to see him and she stayed on guard afterwards?

Rochard: I must remind you that her position was not a very substantial one. There was no funding for her work in the existing pantheon of gods. "Who" was definitely a second-string deity.

Charlie: No Vestal Virgins?

Rochard: They weren't invented yet. Grbrdng used to have a cohort of eunuchs, but that petered out. No, she was basically a One-Priestess show. When she saw him leaving she called out to him to turn back, but he would not heed her warnings. It was only after repeated attempts that she finally had to resort to the ultimate action. She announced who she was. She delineated her powers granted to her by the god, "Who". She re-stated her proclamation of isolation. Then, when Bobh still didn't turn back, she armed her bow and executed him.

Charlie: That's a chilling story. What about his fiancée?

Rochard: Phoebe?

Charlie: That was her name?

Rochard: That was her name. Unfortunately, after Bobh was executed, we never found any traces of Phoebe. Presumably, she married another… or was eaten.

Charlie: We know what happened to Bob-huh, but what about Grbrdng?

Rochard: Her actions gave her and "Who" new respect, not only among humans, but also among the gods. She received a grander temple and her monthly allotment of wine and gold became larger. While she was High Priestess, the public health was of the highest quality. Whenever she issued an isolation order or a quarantine order, it was respected and obeyed because her proclamations were clear, concise, and became universal laws. There was neither inconsistency nor confusion. That's why when she finally died about eighty years later, she was elevated to the status of goddess herself and became the bridesmaid of Apollo.

Charlie: And the athlete's foot?

Rochard: After Bobh's death, it went extinct and didn't resurrect itself until the 1896 Olympics.


The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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