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100 Objects That Shaped Public Health in Cities

Window screens, spittoons, and the Chevrolet Corvair are part of Johns Hopkins University’s list of objects that changed public health.
A1965 photo of Chevrolet's rear-engine Corvair Corsa sports coupe.
A1965 photo of Chevrolet's rear-engine Corvair Corsa sports coupe.AP

The quality of life in American cities has come a long way since the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health first opened its doors in 1916. Back then, sewage systems were rare, living conditions were deplorable, and polluted water regularly made it into the drinking supply. Communicable diseases spread rapidly among crowded populations, with outbreaks decimating entire cities.

“The great flu was right around the corner, and thousands of people died in cramped and horrible conditions,”says Joshua Sharfstein, an associate dean at the university. “That episode particularly revealed how vulnerable cities were to infectious diseases.” Called the Blue Death, the 1918 influenza pandemic spread across cities including Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and New Orleans, eventually killing an estimated 20 to 50 million people worldwide.