Each day I get an alert from History.com’s “THIS DAY IN HISTORY”* and (nearly) always find something about it that fascinates me. A couple days ago it was about Christopher Columbus’ mistaking manatees for mermaids, and that sent me down a rabbit hole. I learned about the Steller’s sea cow (and of course that recalled for me the recent sightings of the wayward Steller’s sea eagle who is having trouble finding his way home to Eastern Russia), their namesake (George Wilhelm Steller – quite an amazing fellow in his own right; I’ll have to study this 18th century botanist/explorer further), manatees, and ending with a perusal of mermaid-centered 15th century art. I hardly need to point out that all of this took place in the comfort of my home via the internet. How would we otherwise manage COVID restrictions?
This morning was no different; I happily descended the rabbit hole; in fact, I haven’t fully re-emerged. On this day in history in 1964, the U.S. surgeon general Luther Terry reported the findings of a two-year commission: succinctly put, smoking was hazardous to your health. Its obviousness is laughable now, but you can’t help but time travel back to 1964 and re-experience — in your imagination — how prevalent smoking was, and how accepted its practice was. My parents were both smokers, and I’m sure nearly half of my readers can say the same thing. We can commiserate about all the joyless car rides in which our greatest challenge was how not to breath in the secondhand smoke. Meals were typically followed by a ritual lighting up of either a Kent or a Winston, and no project by Dad went unaccompanied by a smoldering cigarette notched into the rim of an ash tray. With just the merest effort, I can re-imagine the distinctive aroma of a filled ash tray. I was forever emptying the abalone and clam shells that we used as improvised ashtrays and washing them out, but of course the cycle was perpetual, therefore making my gesture pointless.
Surgeon General Terry’s 1964 report was a watershed moment. As the percentage of adult smokers had surpassed 40% and there was no sign of the upward trend reversing, he had done something quite courageous. Knowing that the pushback by the enormously powerful tobacco industry would be fierce and prolonged, and mindful of Wall Street ramifications, he nevertheless put his (unsurprising) findings in front of the public. While it took decades for legislation to subsequently be enacted, Terry’s principled stand serves as a heartening example of one influential person’s choice to prioritize the public good. In a world where profit, expediency, and self-interest on the one hand compete with public health, humanitarianism, and charity on the other, today’s leaders could use such a reminder.
Check out “THIS DAY IN HISTORY”: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history