Letters in the Limelight: the battle for clean milk

Coll.14.23.6 Clean milk p1Cataloguing the correspondence of zoologist/animal breeder James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), I have been intrigued by the various ‘life stories’ which emerge from the letters. Periodically I will be including some highlights in a series of posts entitled ‘letters in the limelight.’

Naturally much of Ewart’s correspondence in the collection is concerned with both the commercial and the purely scientific aspects of animal breeding. However, Ewart was also involved periodically with issues surrounding human health and its relation to agricultural industries. This week’s letter is from a man called William Burgess (although his signature is unclear), who writes from Highwood Hill, Mill Hill, London on 11 July 1917. Burgess writes that he has read Ewart’s article ‘The Saving of Child Life’, which appeared in The Nineteenth Century and After (Vol. 82, Part 1, 1917), and which dealt with the issue of infant mortality arising from the consumption of raw (that is, unpasteurised) milk.

From the 1880s onwards it became known that diseases such as bovine tuberculosis could be spread to humans from cattle through milk, and that children were particularly susceptible to infection. Even though pasteurisation had been discovered in the 1860s, the idea was slow in being put into practice, and the battle for clean milk was a lengthy one. It was 1934 before milk pasteurisation and compulsory tuberculin skin testing of cattle was adopted in the UK (in the 1930s, it was thought that around 40% of dairy cows were infected with TB). However, pasteurisation of milk is still not compulsory in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, although it was made compulsory in Scotland in 1983. Ewart was clearly carrying out practical research into methods for milk cleanliness in preparation for his article; another letter in the collection from February of that year is from John Robertson, Medical Officer of Health in the Birmingham Public Health and Housing Department. Robertson recommends that Ewart visit a certain farm near Basingstoke to see a particular method of cleansing in action.

Burgess writes that the advice Ewart’s article contains would be invaluable if it was ‘boiled down’ into a tract and made comprehensible to ‘ordinary people’, both the farmers who produce milk and the parents who purchase it. He writes that he himself has a small dairy and sells milk to his neighbours, so he will ask the district nurse to keep a watch on new babies. If such a popular tract were written however, Burgess advises Ewart against using such overly ‘scientific’ words as ‘pre-natal’, ‘biometricians’ and ‘heredity’!

This letter demonstrates something of the breadth of applications to which Ewart put his animal breeding work. From investigations into hereditary characteristics to the prehistoric origins of domestic animals to improvements in the wool industry, Ewart was always interested in the wider applications of the natural sciences. The relationship between ‘pure’ biological science, its commercial applications and its implications for human health is something which endures to the present day.

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