“There are three classes of people; those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.” Leonardo da Vinci, as quoted in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
The year is 1957. Imagine you are a young doctor working in a children’s hospital in Philadelphia, and you bend down to examine a three-year-old girl. She is sluggish, nearly comatose, mostly non-verbal, and barely responsive. Her mother is distraught, fearful for her daughter’s life, and also struggling with the guilt you see often when the working-class parents in the community do not come to see you until they are in dire need.
A few questions to the mother and a closer look and you diagnose lead poisoning, a condition you have not seen before in your short career. The slow onset, complaints of stomach pain, low responsiveness, and the presence of peeling paint in the child’s apartment all add up to lead poisoning. Okay, well the hospital has a treatment for that ailment, and you try to set the mother’s mind at ease.
“Your daughter has lead poisoning,” you say, “and we can heal her. But if she eats more paint, there’s no question she will be brain damaged.”
The mother is shocked and her eyes widen with fear. “But where are we supposed to go?” she asks. “Any house we can afford will be no different from the house we are in now.”
The doctor is named Herbert Needleman, and his biography describes this moment as a time when “the scales fell from his eyes.” In 1957 lead paint covered the walls of many dwellings; the child in this story may well have eaten chips of paint. In 1957 doctors knew that lead poisoning caused developmental delays and adverse behavioral changes in children, symptoms that could affect the rest of a child’s life, if the lead poisoning did not turn out to be deadly. Dr. Needleman knew living in a house with lead paint was dangerous for his patient, and now he realized that millions of people were in danger.
Twenty years of study and advocacy later and Dr. Needleman’s findings regarding the dangers of lead poisoning are published in the New England Journal of Medicine. By studying the lead levels in the baby teeth of children and connecting the findings to the IQs and behaviors of those children, Dr. Needleman was able to clearly demonstrate a link between long-term exposure to lead and its adverse effect on cognitive abilities and behavior. “The scales fell from his eyes,” and Dr. Needleman saw the big picture. His work “helped highlight the socioeconomic element of lead poisoning, which posed a particular threat to families living near certain industrial facilities or in poor communities with substandard paint and construction,” according to his obituary in the Washington Post.
Sadly, those vested in the production of lead and products containing lead did not want Dr. Needleman’s findings to result in regulations governing the use of lead in paints, pipes, and other materials. In the course of two investigations into Dr. Needleman’s findings, he was accused of scientific misconduct and was barred access to his own files and research. Powerful interests did not wish to see what Dr. Needleman had seen 30 years earlier and did not wish to acknowledge the great harm their product was doing to the most disadvantaged members of society. In the end, though, the truth won out, Dr. Needleman was vindicated, and federal regulations greatly limit the use of lead in the U.S. today.
I read Herbert Needleman’s obituary week before last and was struck by how common this narrative has become, how sad the story made me, and yet how this man’s story also offered hope for these troubled times. First, as I had to remind myself recently, I had heard a similar tale about the dangers of lead before, thanks to Neil DeGrasse Tyson and his update of the Cosmos series. The episode “The Clean Room” tells the story of Clair Patterson, Ph.D., who calculated the age of the Earth at 4.55 billion years and then studied the long-term effects of lead in the atmosphere. Dr. Patterson’s work eventually contributed to the phase-out of leaded gasoline in 1979, but again not before an extended campaign to personally and professionally discredit Dr. Patterson and his work, greatly helped along by Richmond’s own Ethyl Corporation and abetted by the U.S. government. Like Herbert Needleman, Clair Patterson also spent years under a cloud of investigation and potential professional ruin because powerful interests did not want to see what he was showing the world.
We are all guilty of failing to see what is there. How many times have we seen our parents, our spouses, ourselves squint at a menu, hold it at arm’s length, or twist our head in increasingly odd combinations with one eye squinting and the other open in an attempt to read because we cannot yet acknowledge the reality that we cannot see the words the way we could even two years ago?
I am remembering one humbling moment in front of a hotel mirror. I am washing my face and brushing my hair in preparation for a dinner out with some friends and colleagues. I am preparing to tie my hair back in a ponytail, as I usually did in those days, and I am suddenly struck by the vast expanse of my pale white forehead and the widening canyon of my part. My expectation of holding on to my rock-solid hairline and “thick, lustrous hair,” as George Costanza would say, fell away in that moment before the mirror. Why I suddenly saw in that moment what had certainly been visible for many months I cannot say, but I have not worn my hair in a ponytail since. I did not see, until I did.
We do something because that’s the way our parents did it and no amount of articles in the Washington Post or wherever else are going to jar us out of our long-standing worldview. So we keep putting leaded gas in our cars, we keep spanking our children, we keep buying Styrofoam containers, we keep using asbestos in our tile floors, long after the scientific consensus is that we really should stop doing these things. Once upon a time we declared the earth was flat, the earth was the center of the universe, and the earth was only 5,000 years old. Far too many of us still declare that humans cannot be descended from primates. Far too many of us still deny that these same humans are causing the earth to warm to a greater degree than it would be otherwise if we had never entered the age of oil. Science has shown us what is there, but powerful vested interests do not want us to see.
Here’s the thing, though. You can keep squinting, contorting, complaining about the lighting, or you can get reading glasses. You can comb-over, get creative with your hats, get a toupee, or you can accept the genetic loss of hair. You can see what is there, or you can adjust your version of reality to not see it, but it is still there.
Dr. Needleman’s recent passing has reminded me that we have been down these paths many times before. Both Dr. Needleman and Dr. Patterson had to build decades of study and scientific consensus, and endure extensive efforts to discredit their work and their personal integrity, so that we Americans could live in a world largely free from an environmental toxin that causes brain damage in our children. We nearly drove our national symbol, the bald eagle, extinct before we accepted that a common pesticide was seriously harming the eggs of bald eagles.
I want to be one who sees. I want to be able to change when the evidence shows me that change is in order. I want to be able to let go of an entrenched view when the evidence shows me a better perspective. I want to look in the mirror and accept the gray hair and the widening part. I want to put on my glasses and be thankful for the clarity they provide, rather than curse the failing eyesight that led me to buy the glasses in the first place. I am not so good at change, but I want to be better. I am not so good at updating my perspective, but I want to improve.
I am dreaming of an America that sees, rather than an America that does not want to see. Many days I despair. Some days I have hope.
“Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” Leonardo da Vinci, as quoted in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts