Woodward looks back

In 1922 Robert Simpson Woodward, then 72 years of age, looked at the current state of the United States. His thoughts were published in the New York Times on 19 March 1922:-

Yes, the war has set the world back half a century. The workmen have gone crazy over the luxuries which the high wages brought them. The essential virtues practiced by out forefathers who built this great country - industry, thrift and fidelity - have been almost destroyed. Neither you nor I will live to see the regeneration. After the Civil War it took thirty years, now it will take much longer.

Nations rise and fall, but the progress goes on. For instance, this war, which has wrought so much havoc abroad, has produced and enormous stimulation in all scientific research, and a greater appreciation of the meaning of scientific work, than the world, and particularly the layman, has ever had before. People have got to know one another better. Men in one walk of life have lived in close contact with and learned to understand those of another. The bonds are closer and the ties of sympathy greater, so even out of a tremendous debacle good has come, and that is the way the history of the world is written.

I am studying people, the people I meet, who seem to see no reason why wages should not go on increasing indefinitely - the railroad men who voted to strike and the men on my farm who struck, curiously enough at the moment when the Government called a national conference on unemployment. Human nature is strange, isn't it? But no employer who is intelligent can fail to recognize the steady degeneration of the calibre of employees. While the wages during the last six years have mounted steadily, the quality of work given for the high prices has with equal regularity declined.

That is why I say that the old-fashioned virtues are being destroyed - not completely destroyed, however, for on the whole I believe in the progress of the human race, the sacrifice of the individual to the race if necessary. All through the history of the world progress has gone in cycles, or, we might say, in pendulum-like waves of calm and stress. We're on the wrong side of the storm centre now, but with its next swirl it will carry men a little higher along the path. I believe that thoroughly. In 1950, perhaps, or 1980, we shall once more be on the upper trend - that is, those who come after us - the next generation.

But we have many obstacles in the way of progress and civilisation. Superstitions that everyone has are extremely hard to batter down in the fight for progress. They die hard even in a race which believes it is civilized. Not so long ago the newspapers related how a multitude of men, women and children, many of them suffering from loathsome, contagious diseases, gathered to kiss an ancient relic with the idea that it had peculiar properties that would cure them. It was a case of superstition against scientific knowledge. No less hard a death was that of the idea of a flat, four-cornered globe. Who would believe that as late as the latter part of the nineteenth century this theory was argued by intelligent men?

However, the epochs and episodes or retrogression must be expected and taken into account in making up the estimate of scientific progress. The average position of so-called civilised men is always behind the mean position obtained by scientists. But I believe that the war has given impetus to science and that the future looks very bright. In the past century we have seen the extinction of the ravages of such dread diseases as typhus and yellow fever; and a great mitigation of consumption and typhoid. It was necessity which cleared Havana of yellow fever and produced there extraordinary and effective health regulations. Those elements will largely aid the onward march of science.

Last Updated April 2009