Skip to content

Not long ago; or, Little by little (10): Switzerland’s iodine revolution

At the turn of the 20th century, the Swiss were plagued by strange, interlinked medical conditions, which existed elsewhere to a degree, but in Switzerland were endemic in more than 80 per cent of the country.

It was a curse that had a mark: the goitre, a bulge of flesh protruding from the front of the neck, sometimes so large that it weighed on the windpipe, giving bearers a characteristic wheeze. It was often disguised by collars and high necklines, but its true extent is laid bare by conscription data.

In 1921, nearly 30 per cent of 19-year-old Swiss conscripts had a goitre. In the cantons of Luzern and Obwalden, one in four men were exempt from military service as a result of goitres so large they struggled to breathe. For every man with a goitre, three women suffered from the condition. Children were the most vulnerable of all: in 1921, in the city of Bern, 94 per cent of schoolchildren had some swelling of the neck and almost 70 per cent had a goitre.

In some parts of the country, one in ten babies was born with what was then known as cretinism. The afflicted grew little more than a metre tall, and had compressed features, thick skin, thin hair and distended bellies. Those with the disease were unable to hear or speak and were profoundly brain-damaged. In 1922, there were at least five thousand people with the condition in Switzerland.

Across the country, one person in six hundred was born deaf – a rate five times the international norm. In Zurich and Bern, the most affected cantons, the rate was one in two hundred. Another malaise also affected the Swiss: brain fog – a sense of exhaustion, of hopelessness, of always being cold.

The burden of these illnesses is hard to overstate. At a time when even young children were expected to help support the family, the birth of a cretin could be a catastrophe. Through it all, there was the fear of what a birth might bring; the fear that it was their fault. This was an ancient evil, noted by Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder.

For tourists in the 19th century, the afflicted were one of the sights. ‘On comprend les crétins dont [pullule] la Suisse,’ Victor Hugo wrote from Bern in 1839. ‘Les Alpes font beaucoup d’idiots.’ Mark Twain, in 1880, reported the words of an English traveller: ‘I have seen the principal features of Swiss scenery – Mount Blanc and the goitre – now for home.’

Jonah Goodman – A National Evil – London Review of Books

They only really started treating the goitre successfully – with iodised table salt – in 1922.

See also:

Little By Little 1: Raymond Briggs on 1940s Britain
Little By Little 2: Li Kunwa on indoor plumbing in 1980s China
Little By Little 3: Scarcity and Subsistence in rural Suffolk in the 1900s
Little By Little 4: Dolly Parton on the scar on her toes (rural poverty in 1950s Tennessee)
Not long ago; or, Little by little (5): Tyler Cowen on progress in living standards since 1900
Not long ago; or, Little by little (6): New York Tenement, 1889
Not long ago; or, Little by little (7): Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack – health and safety edition
Not long ago; or, Little by little (8): Singapore market, early 1970s

Not long ago; or, Little by little (9): Car ownership in China 1999-2019


I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...