The Pandemic and the Limits of Science
Alan Burdickr 艾伦·伯迪克
he pandemic which has just swept round the earth has been without precedent.” So noted a May 1919 article in the journal Science， “The Lessons of the Pandemic.” The author，Maj. George A. Soper， was an American civil and sanitation engineer who， among other accomplishments，had devised a plan for ventilating New York's subway system.
The pandemic， of course， was the Spanish flu of 1918-1919， which caused 50 million deaths worldwide， including 675，000 in the United States. Scientists had no idea what had hit them， Soper wrote: “The most astonishing thing about the pandemic was the complete mystery which surrounded it.” Viruses were still unknown; the illness was clearly respiratory — pneumonia was a common result — but the culprit was thought to be bacterial. （The actual pathogen，
an H1N1 influenza A virus， was not identified until the 1990s.）
The pandemic currently underway could hardly be more transparent by comparison. And yet still the virus spread. Travel restrictions， school closures， stay-at-home orders. Illness and isolation， anxiety and depression. Loss after loss after loss: of dear friends and family members， of employment，of the simple company of others. Last week，the C.D.C. concluded that 2020 was the deadliest year in American history. For some，this past year seemed to last a century; for far too many people， this past year was their last.
Read today， Soper's essay stands out at first for its quaint medical advice. He urged his readers， sensibly， to “avoid needless crowding，” but also to “avoid tight clothes，tight shoes” and to chew one's food thoroughly. He added， “It is not desirable to make the general wearing of masks compulsory.”
Most striking， though， are the main lessons he drew from his pandemic， which are all too applicable to ours. One， respi-
ratory diseases are highly contagious， and even the common ones demand attention. Two， the burden of preventing their spread falls heavily on the individual. These create， three， the overarching challenge: “Public indifference，” Soper wrote. “People do not appreciate the risks they run.”
A hundred-plus years of medical progress later， the same obstacle remains. It is the duty of leadership， not science， to shake its citizens from indifference.
“Let us hope that the nations will see the need” and “initiate the work which so greatly requires to be done，” Soper wrote in 1919. Let us hope that， before the next pandemic comes， we will have done more than hope.