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By Russell Bertrand

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These core tenets provided a powerful stimulus for Newman’s career and they influenced many of the conclusions he reached concerning how best to improve public health. After Newman retired a suggestion was made that he should publish a selection from his annual reports. He decided against this and instead wrote The Building of a Nation’s Health (1939) which provides an overview of his contribution to public health and serves as his personal account of the history of public health in Britain. Above all Newman will be best remembered for his advocacy of preventive medicine: We know two certainties about disease: first, that it is not something arbitrary, capricious, occult or accidental, but an effect of definite causes and conditions; and secondly, that these causes and conditions are in large and increasing measure controllable by man’ (Newman, 1920: 4; Bynum, 1995).

For example, it is difficult to argue that a society in which one section of the population has an IMR of 200 while another section suffers only 100 infant deaths per 1,000 births experiences half the inequality compared with a society where the maximum IMR is, say, 4 and the minimum 1. Regardless of the level of inequality, the differences between mortality rates in the best and worst areas, or – and these may not always be interchangeable – the richest and poorest groups, highlight the fact that potentially avoidable infant deaths still occur as a result of social inequity a hundred years after Newman identified infant mortality as a social problem.

Interpreters of Nature (1927) brings together a diverse collection of essays on medical history ranging over topics from the Paduan School of Medicine to biographical studies of Thomas Sydenham, Louis Pasteur and John Keats’ career as apothecary and poet. Newman was always keen to place contemporary developments firmly within their historical context; ‘No medical man can afford to be ignorant of the history of his calling or of his own special branch of medicine’ (Newman, 1939: 99). His historical writings are however imbued with a Whiggish view of history as the cumulative work of successive generations of doctors is seen to bring disease gradually under control (Newman, 1931; 1932).

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A Debate On The Argument From Contingency by Russell Bertrand

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