The Body and Human Progress

Magnum Photos
Lake Sevan, Armenia, Soviet Union, 1972; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

According to family lore, my father’s mother, Rebecca Kapalovich, arrived at Ellis Island on the day that President William McKinley was shot, September 6, 1901. Sixteen years old, standing less than five feet tall, slim in build, she had left an impoverished village in Russia to seek a better life. Cousins took her into their tenement flat and she soon began sewing clothes in a dark, airless sweatshop on Rivington Street. She and other immigrants on the Lower East Side were exposed to tuberculosis, diphtheria, and pertussis. Subsistence wages made a healthy diet impossible, and disorders like rickets that stunted growth were not uncommon.

Several years after her arrival, Rebecca Kapalovich married Jacob Groopman, who had also fled the deprivations of tsarist Russia. A compact man, five feet five inches tall, he did heavy work as a manual laborer. Influenced by the socialist ideas of the time, and determined to live a healthier life, my grandparents pooled their small savings with extended family and purchased a communal farm in upstate New York. The environment was more salubrious, with nutritious food available from their crops and cows. My father recalled being given concoctions of fresh milk, whole eggs, and honey (“guggle-muggles”) to fortify his skinny form.

The time on the farm proved short, bankruptcy forcing a return to New York City, where my grandfather, during the Depression, sold apples from a cart in the street. He died in middle age from a heart attack, a typical outcome when there were few treatments for cardiac disorders.

My family’s standard of living rose as economic opportunity began to open to lower classes and ethnic groups once held down by prejudice and limited education. After World War II, federal initiatives like the GI bill allowed veterans to pursue college and graduate study and then get better jobs. Scientific advances such as the development of vaccines against polio reduced the morbidity and mortality of viral epidemics, and the development of numerous antibiotics made the treatment of once harrowing bacterial infections, like the appendicitis that took the life of my aunt when she was a child, a matter of course. In the 1950s, my sister and brother and I had access to modern medicines and plentiful food when we were growing, and grow we did.

In a corner of the bedroom I shared with my brother, my mother made small pencil marks noting our vertical progress. I ultimately reached six foot four and a half, my brother six foot two and a half. (Each of our parents was five foot seven.) Those pencil marks are of interest not only to parents and grandparents focused on the health and well-being of their progeny, but to scholars who seek to assess the state of a society, its productivity, and its distribution of resources.

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