Lying with graphs is an old game.

Y’all may know that I dabble in the History of Medicine (specifically it’s my PhD minor). Well, today I’d like to either introduce you to or remind you of Benjamin Rush’s Moral and Physical Thermometer chart. If you need a refresher on Rush himself, he signed the Declaration of Independence, but more importantly for our purposes he was like THE preeminent physician of his day–in Philadelphia for sure, and probably the whole of the United States. The thermometer is a figure that accompanied his 1790 monograph, “An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind with an Account of the Means of Preventing and of the Remedies for Curing Them.” The 18th Century was not known for its snappy titles.

I’m posting the thermometer to remind you that just because a person has a chart doesn’t mean he knows what he’s doing. Not only did physicians in general during this period have sod all idea of how to cure disease (“Acne, you say? Try more leeches.”), but the whole concept of empiricism was still kind of cutting edge. I don’t doubt that Rush believed he had objectively and dispassionately observed a continuum of alcoholic spirits, and shown that the more plebeian your booze, the more pernicious its effect on your health. Maybe now is also the time to mention that after meeting a black man with vitiligo, Dr. Rush decided that blackness was a curable form of leprosy–it’s ſcience!

So yeah, you and I know that Rush was talking out of his founding fatherly butt. I know from personal experience that wine causes “puking” just as effectively as gin. But doesn’t that chart make it all look so…measurable? So quantitative? And so precise? Thermometers are objective–surely these measures of social ruin have been as carefully calibrated as a mercury thermoscope. Doesn’t it just make you want to shout, “When will big Egg Rum stop denying that its product causes peevishness?”


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