Saturday, August 6, 2011


(Sorry Gang! I lost the formatting war with this post...)

Dick Van Dyke as Bert

The other day I found myself thinking about Bert (Dick Van Dyke), the happy-go lucky, charismatic chimney sweep from the film Mary Poppins.

Bert considers himself rather lucky. As an early 20th century working man, immersed in the products of combustion (namely soot) with (supposedly) better hygienic practices than his 18th and 19th century chimney sweep counterparts, he probably is luckier than his professional forefathers were.

Doctor Pott, I presume.

In 1775 Percival Pott described the first malignant disease connected with a specific occupation. What, you ask, was this occupation? Chimney sweeping. And what was the occupational disease associated with it? Why, scrotal cancer!

Being a chimney sweep in 18th century London was a living hell, particularly for young boys drafted into profession. These boys were forced to crawl up the chimneys in order to clean them out. According to a fabulous article, A Brief History Of Scrotal Cancer, 17th and 18th century chimneys were narrow and crooked. You couldn’t get the cleaning equipment through the steeply angled 9x14” spaces. So what to do? Send a boy up there, of course… naked!

According to the article, many boys would get stuck in the chimney and suffocate from inhaling too much soot. Then they’d have to call a brick mason, to get the dead body of the child out. Sometimes these boys were sent into the chimney to put out fires!

If a boy survived his chimney adventures, eventually he’d grow to be too big to go up the chimney himself. In 1842 an Act was passed to keep boys out of chimneys, although the custom continued for another twenty years. Bert’s grandfather may have been one of the boys sent up the chimney.

What does a naked boy crawling in a chimney have to do with scrotal cancer? These kids were exposed everywhere to soot, smoke, and carcinogenic products of combustion.

Run away little Michael... run!


Carcinogens cause cancer by mutating cells or altering their metabolisms. There are all sorts of carcinogens - tobacco, some forms of salted fish, some hepatitis viruses, alcoholic drinks, cell phone radiation, coal and wood smoke, soot, etc. Sometimes it seems like everything is carcinogenic.

The soot-covered Bert shakes hands with the tobacco smoker.

Good luck will rub off! (Or be inhaled!)

Although cancer is a common event, it can be somewhat unpredictable. A person might be exposed to a carcinogen, their cells altered, and the cancer won’t show up until years later. Additionally, not everyone exposed to the carcinogen is guaranteed to develop cancer. Some people might be genetically predisposed to developing it, or a person might need to be exposed to the agent in a specific way. Other people might not develop tumors after the same type of exposure as someone who develops cancer.

Which of these men will develop lung or scrotal cancer?

Next time... the name the chimney sweeps gave this form of cancer, plus a description of 18th century treatment for this disease!

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