How Far We've Come

How Far We've Come

To hear Edgar Diddams reminisce is to get a dose of what public health used to be. “I remember when we used to build privies,” the former sanitarian says. “We supervised the building of privies, WPA privies, and they were sold to people wanting them. I think they only charged around $10.”

When Diddams, M.S.P.H. ’38, first went into public health, milk wasn’t routinely pasteurized, and septic tanks and privies were common. One of his duties as a sanitarian for the state of Washington in the 1940s was to oversee the environmental health of several counties that lacked health departments. One of them was an island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. “You could only get there by boat,” Diddams remembers. “The boat went in once a day, so you worked a day, and the next day you took it to the next island and worked a day.”

In 1953 Diddams moved to Illinois to become chief sanitarian for the McLean County Health Department. He supervised milk sanitation efforts for 400 farms and distributed septic tanks, “all those good things that you don’t think about today in public health.” When he retired in 1976, computers were just coming in. “Thank god I retired,” he laughs.

Still spry at 92, Diddams works out on a treadmill twice daily and lifts weights three times a week. Last September, the Bloomington, Illinois, Pantagraph hailed him as “a role model for successful aging.”

“Since I first met him in 1993, he was always jovial,” Diddams’s doctor, Uday Deoskar, told the paper. “The most important thing he had was attitude.” Deoskar said Diddams exemplified the three elements of successful aging: minimizing or controlling disease, social engagement, and preservation of physical and mental health.

Not that it’s easy. His wife, Mary, died in 2004, and diabetes nearly killed Diddams himself that same year. Macular degeneration has left him almost blind. The staff at Westminster Village, an assisted-care facility where he’s lived for the past year, help him bathe and dress, and they take him back and forth to meals. But he doesn’t complain. “It is so sad to see people sitting and saying, ‘Gosh I can’t do that, I can’t see this.’ It’s a poor word to use—I ‘can’t.’”

Late last year, as he stirred the ice in one of the two cocktails he allows himself every afternoon, Diddams reflected on the changes he’s seen in his lifetime.

Back when he was a student at the School of Public Health, a room in Ann Arbor cost $10 a month, and a beer was ten cents, “but you couldn’t afford that.” Diddams studied public health by chance but came to love the field, because he liked “working with people and for people.”

When he embarked on his career, many Americans still drank raw milk and got their water from wells. Edgar Diddams is one of the reasons they changed that behavior. “I have to pinch myself to realize how far we’ve come, really,” he said.

“We have come a long, long ways. Maybe some of it by accident, but most of it because there are people interested in public health and in health.”

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