This spring, just like any other year, thousands of young North American engineers will graduate from their respective colleges ready to start erecting buildings, assembling machinery, and programming software, among other things. But before they take on these complex and important tasks, many of them will recite a special vow stating their ethical obligations to society, not unlike the physicians who take their Hippocratic Oath, affirming their ethos toward the patients they would treat. At the end of the ceremony, the engineers receive an iron ring, as a reminder of their promise to the millions of people their work will serve.
The ceremony isn’t just another graduation formality. As a profession, engineering has ethical weight. Moreover, engineering mistakes can be even more deadly than medical ones. A doctor’s error may cost a patient their life. But an engineering blunder may bring down a plane or crumble a building, resulting in many more fatalities. When larger projects—such as fracking, deep-sea mining or building nuclear reactors—malfunction and backfire, they can cause global disasters, afflicting millions. A vow that reminds an engineer that their work directly affects humankind and their planet is no less important than a medical oath that summons one to do no harm.
The tradition of taking an engineering oath began over a century ago in Canada. In 1922, Herbert E.T. Haultain, professor of mining engineering at the University of Toronto, presented the idea at the annual meeting of the Engineering Institute of Canada. The seven past presidents of that body were in attendance, heard Haultain’s speech and accepted his suggestion to form a committee to create an honor oath. Later, they formed the nonprofit Corporation of the Seven Wardens, which would oversee the ritual. Next year, in 1923, with the encouragement of the Seven Wardens, Haultain wrote to poet and writer Rudyard Kipling, asking him to develop a professional oath for engineers. “We are a tribe—a very important tribe within the community,” Haultain said in the letter, “but we are lacking in tribal spirit, or perhaps I should say, in manifestation of tribal spirit. Also, we are inarticulate. Can you help us?”
While Kipling is most famous now for “The Jungle Book” and perhaps his poem “Gunga Din,” he had also written a short story about engineers, “The Bridge Builders.” His poem “The Sons of Martha” can be read as a celebration of engineers:
It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.
Kipling accepted the ask and wrote the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, which he sent to Haultaina month later. In his response to Haultain, he stated that he preferred the word “Obligation” to “Oath.” He wrote the Obligation using Old English lettering and the old-fashioned capitalization. Kipling’s Obligation binds engineers upon their “Honor and Cold Iron” to not “suffer or pass, or be privy to the passing of, Bad Workmanship or Faulty Material,” and pardon is asked “in the presence of my betters and my equals in my Calling” for the engineer’s “assured failures and derelictions.” The hope is that when one is tempted to shoddy work by weakness or weariness, the memory of the Obligation “and the company before whom it was entered into, may return to me to aid, comfort, and restrain.”
Using the Obligation, The Seven Wardens created an induction ceremony, which seeks to unify the profession and recognize engineering’s ethics, including responsibility to the public and the need to make the best decisions possible. The induction ceremony included recitation of Kipling’s “Obligation” and incorporated an anvil, a hammer, an iron chain, and an iron ring. The inductee engineers sat inside an area marked off by the iron chain, with their more senior colleagues outside that area. At the start of the ritual, the leader beat out S-S-T in Morse code with the hammer and anvil—the letters standing for Steel, Stone, and Time. A more experienced and previously obligated engineer placed the ring on the small finger of the inductee engineer’s working hand. As per Kipling, the ring’s rough, faceted texture symbolized “the young engineer’s mind” and the difficulties engineers face in mastering their discipline.
A persistent myth purports that the original iron rings were made from the beams or bolts of the Quebec Bridge that failed twice during construction.
The first induction ceremony took place on April 25, 1925, in Montreal to obligate two of the Seven Wardens, along with four graduates from the University of Toronto class of 1893. On May 1 of that year, 14 more engineers were obligated at the University of Toronto. From that time to today most Canadian professional engineers have gone through that same ritual in their various camps, called Kipling camps—local chapters associated with various Canadian universities.
Henry Petroski, Duke University’s professor of civil engineering and history, notes in his book, “Forgive Design: Understanding Failure,” that Kipling’s poem “Sons of Martha” is often read as part of the ritual. However, sometimes inductees read Kipling’s “Hymn of Breaking Strain,” instead, which graphically depicts disastrous outcomes of engineering mistakes. The first stanza of that poem says:
The careful text-books measure
(Let all who build beware!)
The load, the shock, the pressure
Material can bear.
So, when the buckled girder
Lets down the grinding span,
'The blame of loss, or murder,
Is laid upon the man.
Not on the Stuff—the Man!
As if to strengthen the importance of these concepts, a persistent myth purports that the original iron rings were made from the beams or bolts of the Quebec Bridge that failed twice during construction. The bridge spans the St. Lawrence River upriver from Quebec City, and at the time of its construction was the world’s longest at 1,800 feet. Due to engineering errors and poor oversight, the bridge’s own weight exceeded its carrying capacity. Moreover, engineers downplayed danger when bridge beams began to warp under stress, saying that they were probably warped before they were installed. On August 29, 1907, the bridge collapsed, killing 75 of 86 workers. A second collapse occurred in 1916 when lifting equipment failed, and thirteen more workers died.
The ring myth, however, couldn’t be true. The original iron rings couldn’t have come from the failed bridge since it was made of steel, not wrought iron. Today the rings are made from stainless steel because iron deteriorates and stains engineers’ finger black.
On August 14, 2018, Morandi Bridge over Polcevera River in Genoa, Italy, collapsed from structural failure, killing 43 people.
The Seven Wardens decided to restrict the ritual to engineers trained in Canada. They copyrighted the obligation oath in Canada and the United States in 1935. Although the ritual is not a requirement for professional licensing, just like the Hippocratic Oath is not part of medical licensing, it remains a long-standing tradition.
The American Obligation of the Engineer has its own creation story, albeit a very different one. The American Order of the Engineer (OOE) was initiated in 1970, during the era of the anti-war protests, Apollo missions and the first Earth Day. On May 4, 1970, the National Guard shot into a crowd of protesters at Kent State University, killing four people. The two authors of the American obligation—Cleveland State University’s (CSU) engineering professor John Janssen and his wife Susan—reflected these historical events in the oath they wrote. Their version of the oath binds engineers to “practice integrity and fair dealing.” It also notes that their “skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of the Earth’s precious wealth.” As Petroski explains in his book, “campus antiwar protestors around the country tended to view engineers as complicit in weapons proliferation [which] prompted some [CSU] engineering student leaders to look for a means of asserting some more positive values.”
Kip A. Wedel, associate professor of history and politics at Bethel College, wrote in his book, “The Obligation: A History of the Order of the Engineer,” that the ceremony was not a direct response to the Kent State shootings—it was already scheduled when the shootings happened. Yet, engineering students found the ceremony a positive action they could take in contrast to the overall turmoil. The first American ritual took place on June 4, 1970, at CSU. In total, 170 students, faculty members, and practicing engineers took the obligation. This established CSU as the first Link of the Order, as the OOE designates its local chapters. For their first ceremony, the CSU students fabricated smooth, unfaceted rings from stainless steel pipe. Later they were replaced by factory-made rings. According to Paula Ostaff, OOE’s Executive Director, about 20,000 eligible students and alumni obligate themselves yearly.
Societies hope that every engineer is imbued with a strong ethical sense and that their pledges are never far from mind. For some, the rings they wear serve a daily reminder that every paper they sign off on is touched by a physical reminder of their commitment.
These ethical and responsible engineering practices are especially salient today, when one in three American bridges needs repair or replacement, some have already collapsed, and engineers are working on projects related to the bipartisan infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law in 2021. Canada has committed $33 billion to its Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program. At the heart of these grand projects are many thousands of professional engineers, collectively working millions of hours. The professional vows they took aim to assure that the homes, bridges and airplanes they build will work as expected.
If you had lived one hundred years ago, syphilis – a bacterial infection spread by sexual contact – would likely have been one of your worst nightmares. Even though syphilis still exists, it can now be detected early and cured quickly with a course of antibiotics. Back then, however, before antibiotics and without an easy way to detect the disease, syphilis was very often a death sentence.
To understand how feared syphilis once was, it’s important to understand exactly what it does if it’s allowed to progress: the infections start off as small, painless sores or even a single sore near the vagina, penis, anus, or mouth. The sores disappear around three to six weeks after the initial infection – but untreated, syphilis moves into a secondary stage, often presenting as a mild rash in various areas of the body (such as the palms of a person’s hands) or through other minor symptoms. The disease progresses from there, often quietly and without noticeable symptoms, sometimes for decades before it reaches its final stages, where it can cause blindness, organ damage, and even dementia. Research indicates, in fact, that as much as 10 percent of psychiatric admissions in the early 20th century were due to dementia caused by syphilis, also known as neurosyphilis.
Like any bacterial disease, syphilis can affect kids, too. Though it’s spread primarily through sexual contact, it can also be transmitted from mother to child during birth, causing lifelong disability.
The poet-physician Aldabert Bettman, who wrote fictionalized poems based on his experiences as a doctor in the 1930s, described the effect syphilis could have on an infant in his poem Daniel Healy:
I always got away clean
when I went out
With the boys.
The night before
I was married
I went out,—But was not so fortunate;
And I infected
When little Daniel
His eyes discharged;
And I dared not tell
I had seen too much
Little Daniel sees not at all
Given the horrors of untreated syphilis, it’s maybe not surprising that people would go to extremes to try and treat it. One of the earliest remedies for syphilis, dating back to 15th century Naples, was using mercury – either rubbing it on the skin where blisters appeared, or breathing it in as a vapor. (Not surprisingly, many people who underwent this type of “treatment” died of mercury poisoning.)
Other primitive treatments included using tinctures made of a flowering plant called guaiacum, as well as inducing “sweat baths” to eliminate the syphilitic toxins. In 1910, an arsenic-based drug called Salvarsan hit the market and was hailed as a “magic bullet” for its ability to target and destroy the syphilis-causing bacteria without harming the patient. However, while Salvarsan was effective in treating early-stage syphilis, it was largely ineffective by the time the infection progressed beyond the second stage. Tens of thousands of people each year continued to die of syphilis or were otherwise shipped off to psychiatric wards due to neurosyphilis.
It was in one of these psychiatric units in the early 20th century that Dr. Julius Wagner-Juaregg got the idea for a potential cure.
Wagner-Juaregg was an Austrian-born physician trained in “experimental pathology” at the University of Vienna. Wagner-Juaregg started his medical career conducting lab experiments on animals and then moved on to work at different psychiatric clinics in Vienna, despite having no training in psychiatry or neurology.
Wagner-Juaregg’s work was controversial to say the least. At the time, medicine – particularly psychiatric medicine – did not have anywhere near the same rigorous ethical standards that doctors, researchers, and other scientists are bound to today. Wagner-Juaregg would devise wild theories about the cause of their psychiatric ailments and then perform experimental procedures in an attempt to cure them. (As just one example, Wagner-Juaregg would sterilize his adolescent male patients, thinking “excessive masturbation” was the cause of their schizophrenia.)
But sometimes these wild theories paid off. In 1883, during his residency, Wagner-Juaregg noted that a female patient with mental illness who had contracted a skin infection and suffered a high fever experienced a sudden (and seemingly miraculous) remission from her psychosis symptoms after the fever had cleared. Wagner-Juaregg theorized that inducing a high fever in his patients with neurosyphilis could help them recover as well.
Eventually, Wagner-Juaregg was able to put his theory to the test. Around 1890, Wagner-Juaregg got his hands on something called tuberculin, a therapeutic treatment created by the German microbiologist Robert Koch in order to cure tuberculosis. Tuberculin would later turn out to be completely ineffective for treating tuberculosis, often creating severe immune responses in patients – but for a short time, Wagner-Juaregg had some success in using tuberculin to help his dementia patients. Giving his patients tuberculin resulted in a high fever – and after completing the treatment, Wagner-Jauregg reported that his patient’s dementia was completely halted. The success was short-lived, however: Wagner-Juaregg eventually had to discontinue tuberculin as a treatment, as it began to be considered too toxic.
By 1917, Wagner-Juaregg’s theory about syphilis and fevers was becoming more credible – and one day a new opportunity presented itself when a wounded soldier, stricken with malaria and a related fever, was accidentally admitted to his psychiatric unit.
When his findings were published in 1918, Wagner-Juaregg’s so-called “fever therapy” swept the globe.
What Wagner-Juaregg did next was ethically deplorable by any standard: Before he allowed the soldier any quinine (the standard treatment for malaria at the time), Wagner-Juaregg took a small sample of the soldier’s blood and inoculated three syphilis patients with the sample, rubbing the blood on their open syphilitic blisters.
It’s unclear how well the malaria treatment worked for those three specific patients – but Wagner-Juaregg’s records show that in the span of one year, he inoculated a total of nine patients with malaria, for the sole purpose of inducing fevers, and six of them made a full recovery. Wagner-Juaregg’s treatment was so successful, in fact, that one of his inoculated patients, an actor who was unable to work due to his dementia, was eventually able to find work again and return to the stage. Two additional patients – a military officer and a clerk – recovered from their once-terminal illnesses and returned to their former careers as well.
When his findings were published in 1918, Wagner-Juaregg’s so-called “fever therapy” swept the globe. The treatment was hailed as a breakthrough – but it still had risks. Malaria itself had a mortality rate of about 15 percent at the time. Many people considered that to be a gamble worth taking, compared to dying a painful, protracted death from syphilis.
Malaria could also be effectively treated much of the time with quinine, whereas other fever-causing illnesses were not so easily treated. Triggering a fever by way of malaria specifically, therefore, became the standard of care.
Tens of thousands of people with syphilitic dementia would go on to be treated with fever therapy until the early 1940s, when a combination of Salvarsan and penicillin caused syphilis infections to decline. Eventually, neurosyphilis became rare, and then nearly unheard of.
Despite his contributions to medicine, it’s important to note that Wagner-Juaregg was most definitely not a person to idolize. In fact, he was an outspoken anti-Semite and proponent of eugenics, arguing that Jews were more prone to mental illness and that people who were mentally ill should be forcibly sterilized. (Wagner-Juaregg later became a Nazi sympathizer during Hitler’s rise to power even though, bizarrely, his first wife was Jewish.) Another problematic issue was that his fever therapy involved experimental treatments on many who, due to their cognitive issues, could not give informed consent.
Lack of consent was also a fundamental problem with the syphilis study at Tuskegee, appalling research that began just 14 years after Wagner-Juaregg published his “fever therapy” findings.
Still, despite his outrageous views, Wagner-Juaregg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1927 – and despite some egregious human rights abuses, the miraculous “fever therapy” was partly responsible for taming one of the deadliest plagues in human history.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.
Exactly 67 years ago, in 1955, a group of scientists and reporters gathered at the University of Michigan and waited with bated breath for Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., director of the school’s Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center, to approach the podium. The group had gathered to hear the news that seemingly everyone in the country had been anticipating for the past two years – whether the vaccine for poliomyelitis, developed by Francis’s former student Jonas Salk, was effective in preventing the disease.
Polio, at that point, had become a household name. As the highly contagious virus swept through the United States, cities closed their schools, movie theaters, swimming pools, and even churches to stop the spread. For most, polio presented as a mild illness, and was usually completely asymptomatic – but for an unlucky few, the virus took hold of the central nervous system and caused permanent paralysis of muscles in the legs, arms, and even people’s diaphragms, rendering the person unable to walk and breathe. It wasn’t uncommon to hear reports of people – mostly children – who fell sick with a flu-like virus and then, just days later, were relegated to spend the rest of their lives in an iron lung.
For two years, researchers had been testing a vaccine that would hopefully be able to stop the spread of the virus and prevent the 45,000 infections each year that were keeping the nation in a chokehold. At the podium, Francis greeted the crowd and then proceeded to change the course of human history: The vaccine, he reported, was “safe, effective, and potent.” Widespread vaccination could begin in just a few weeks. The nightmare was over.
The road to success
Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and virologist who developed the vaccine with his own research team, would rightfully go down in history as the man who eradicated polio. (Today, wild poliovirus circulates in just two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan – with only 140 cases reported in 2020.) But many people today forget that the widespread vaccination campaign that effectively ended wild polio across the globe would have never been possible without the human clinical trials that preceded it.
As with the COVID-19 vaccine, skepticism and misinformation around the polio vaccine abounded. But even more pervasive than the skepticism was fear. The consequences of polio had arguably never been more visible.
The road to human clinical trials – and the resulting vaccine – was a long one. In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in order to raise funding for research and development of a polio vaccine. (Today, we know this organization as the March of Dimes.) A polio survivor himself, Roosevelt elevated awareness and prevention into the national spotlight, even more so than it had been previously. Raising funds for a safe and effective polio vaccine became a cornerstone of his presidency – and the funds raked in by his foundation went primarily to Salk to fund his research.
The Trials Begin
Salk’s vaccine, which included an inactivated (killed) polio virus, was promising – but now the researchers needed test subjects to make global vaccination a possibility. Because the aim of the vaccine was to prevent paralytic polio, researchers decided that they had to test the vaccine in the population that was most vulnerable to paralysis – young children. And, because the rate of paralysis was so low even among children, the team required many children to collect enough data. Francis, who led the trial to evaluate Salk’s vaccine, began the process of recruiting more than one million school-aged children between the ages of six and nine in 272 counties that had the highest incidence of the disease. The participants were nicknamed the “Polio Pioneers.”
Double-blind, placebo-based trials were considered the “gold standard” of epidemiological research back in Francis's day - and they remain the best approach we have today. These rigorous scientific studies are designed with two participant groups in mind. One group, called the test group, receives the experimental treatment (such as a vaccine); the other group, called the control, receives an inactive treatment known as a placebo. The researchers then compare the effects of the active treatment against the effects of the placebo, and every researcher is “blinded” as to which participants receive what treatment. That way, the results aren’t tainted by any possible biases.
But the study was controversial in that only some of the individual field trials at the county and state levels had a placebo group. Researchers described this as a “calculated risk,” meaning that while there were risks involved in giving the vaccine to a large number of children, the bigger risk was the potential paralysis or death that could come with being infected by polio. In all, just 200,000 children across the US received a placebo treatment, while an additional 725,000 children acted as observational controls – in other words, researchers monitored them for signs of infection, but did not give them any treatment.
As with the COVID-19 vaccine, skepticism and misinformation around the polio vaccine abounded. But even more pervasive than the skepticism was fear. President Roosevelt, who had made many public and televised appearances in a wheelchair, served as a perpetual reminder of the consequences of polio, as an infection at age 39 had rendered him permanently unable to walk. The consequences of polio had arguably never been more visible, and parents signed up their children in droves to participate in the study and offer them protection.
The Polio Pioneer Legacy
In a little less than a year, roughly half a million children received a dose of Salk’s polio vaccine. While plenty of children were hesitant to get the shot, many former participants still remember the fear surrounding the disease. One former participant, a Polio Pioneer named Debbie LaCrosse, writes of her experience: “There was no discussion, no listing of pros and cons. No amount of concern over possible side effects or other unknowns associated with a new vaccine could compare to the terrifying threat of polio.” For their participation, each kid received a certificate – and sometimes a pin – with the words “Polio Pioneer” emblazoned across the front.
When Francis announced the results of the trial on April 12, 1955, people did more than just breathe a sigh of relief – they openly celebrated, ringing church bells and flooding into the streets to embrace. Salk, who had become the face of the vaccine at that point, was instantly hailed as a national hero – and teachers around the country had their students to write him ‘thank you’ notes for his years of diligent work.
But while Salk went on to win national acclaim – even accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work on the polio vaccine in 1977 – his success was due in no small part to the children (and their parents) who took a risk in order to advance medical science. And that risk paid off: By the early 1960s, the yearly cases of polio in the United States had gone down to just 910. Where before the vaccine polio had caused around 15,000 cases of paralysis each year, only ten cases of paralysis were recorded in the entire country throughout the 1970s. And in 1979, the virus that once shuttered entire towns was declared officially eradicated in this country. Thanks to the efforts of these brave pioneers, the nation – along with the majority of the world – remains free of polio even today.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.