Diseases

Communicable Diseases: Bessie’s life-long concern that her loved ones might die wasn’t mere paranoia caused by the loss of her husband and two of her children. Children and adults became seriously ill and often died of diseases easily cured today by drugs or prevented by vaccines.

Whooping cough, diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and polio were serious illnesses. Pneumonia, influenza, even measles often took lives. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920 infected 500 million people worldwide and killed approximately 75 million.

Bessie lost two children to scarlet fever. Feggy suffered from rheumatic fever, and both Al and Selig would get polio. Those suffering from malnutrition and living in unsanitary conditions, such as Rachel and her family, would often die from tuberculosis, also called “consumption.” Bessie herself would suffer for many years from extremely high blood pressure, which coupled with several small strokes, would lead to her death in 1950 due to the lack of modern life-saving drugs, many of which we take for granted today. Polio would be essentially eradicated in the U.S. with the introduction of Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine.

Safety Standards: Without realizing the health hazards of these materials, Nathan and Bessie would store lead paint, asbestos and horse-hair-based plaster in their shop for workers to use in people’s homes. Fearing that her workers would get lead poisoning, Bessie encouraged them to wash their hands frequently. One of her workers died of lead poisoning. Regulation of these products wouldn’t appear until 1976—these toxic materials can still be found in older homes and commercial buildings.

Bandaids and Q-tips: Without modern antibiotics, even a minor scratch could easily become a life-threatening infection. Bessie would clean scraped knees and elbows before applying bright orange mercurochrome. (Mercurochrome is now banned as it contains mercury.)  Her job as “nurse” would become easier with the invention of Bandaids and Baby Gays.  Earle Dickson, an employee at Johnson and Johnson where adhesive and gauze was already being manufactured, created Bandaids in 1920 to help his accident-prone wife. Leo Gerstenzeng invented Baby Gays in 1923 to help his wife clean their baby’s ears.  They began as toothpicks with a piece of cotton wrapped around the tip. We know them today as Q-tips (and they should never be put in your ears).