Column: Lightning

Benjamin Franklin was fascinated by lightning. The famous portrait of him flying a kite in a thunderstorm with a young boy running in the background gets many details wrong, including the fact that the boy was his fully grown son, but it captures his curiosity and originality.  One of the ideas that came to him as a storm-chaser was the lightning rod. Simply put, Ben concluded that lightning was electricity traveling through the air and that it could be brought to the ground harmlessly by using a metal pole on top of tall structures.  The metal pole had a wire connected to it and that in turn was connected to a metal rod driven into the ground. This simple device could “ground” a wooden structure and protect it from lightning.  Tall wooden structures struck by lightning would routinely burn or explode as a consequence of the energy contained in the lightning bolt.  Ben could have added to his already considerable fortune by patenting this innovation, but he never applied for a patent and altruistically urged communities to protect their buildings with lightning rods.

One might think there could be nothing less controversial than putting a metal rod on top of a building to keep it from being destroyed in a storm, but one would be wrong. The debate about Franklin’s lightning rod was immediate and heated. Lightning came from the heavens, and this was God’s domain.  If He wanted to destroy a manmade structure, it was not man’s place to frustrate His will. The irony of this widely held position was that, at the time this device was introduced, churches were most often the manmade structures damaged by lightning strikes.  Lightning usually strikes the highest structure in an area with few elevated structures, and church steeples were the tallest structures in many colonial towns.  Those opposing the application of lightning rods served up this observation as additional evidence that lightning was not to be inhibited or redirected. If God disapproved of a church, He would blast it with lightning to send a message. Churches untouched by lightning were obviously virtuous.

This debate between rod proponents and rod opponents raged for more than a century. Herman Melville, the author who told us about white whales with anger management issues, wrote a story about lightning rods more than a hundred years after Franklin floated the idea. The hero in Melville’s rod debate is a common-sense New Englander who is approached by an itinerant rod salesman. The salesman tells his potential client about the dangers of living in a house without a lightning rod. He paints a picture of death and destruction that startles and horrifies the homeowner. The potential buyer listens attentively and is nearly convinced when he suddenly realizes that the salesman is selling much more than a rod: he is selling fear. The sensible New Englander berates the salesman for resorting to fear tactics and demands that he hit the road (or gravel path).

Issues change with time, but people do not. One of today’s leading debates is to vaccinate or not to vaccinate. In Ben Franklin’s time, vaccines against common killers, like measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, smallpox, polio, etc., were unavailable and unimaginable. One might think that development of any of these agents would be viewed as a Godsend, rather than as a crowd control device, and one would be wrong. Even after decades of success with these vaccines, even with infant mortality shrinking and life expectancies soaring, many Americans continue to be violently opposed to these medical miracles. A wide variety of conspiracy theories have developed around government support for vaccines and government demands for inoculations. Even with the Covid-19 pandemic, many Americans are unconvinced that any of the available vaccines are safe or effective. Vaccination cards are available on the Internet that will claim you have been vaccinated, even if you never tried to get vaccinated. The fear grows that the unvaccinated will be excluded from numerous venues, such as schools, airplanes, ocean liners, beaches, sports arenas, and massage parlors, unless they can produce vaccination “passports.”

What is truly odd is that after more than 560,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 and tens of millions have been sickened by the virus, there is no growing fear of death or disability from the virus. Millions crowd the beaches in Florida and the sports arenas in numerous states, and mask wearing is still optional in public venues in most of the United States, and yet there is no apparent fear of Covid-19.  The doctors and scientists can drone on about the spikes in cases and whine about people still not taking precautions, but they simply do not understand. We are Americans. We shall not be sold a lightning rod (or a vaccine shot), even if not having one puts our homes and families at risk. Attaching that rod to our homes or allowing a vaccine to be injected into our arms announces to our neighbors that we are cowardly, that we do not trust our Maker to do right by us, that we submit to peer pressure, that we believe science, that we accept Government recommendations. If those were bullets, rather than lightning bolts or viruses coming at us, we would rather die than duck. Or so the messaging goes.

Of course every American has the right to die, but no one has the right to take others with him or her to the grave.  Unfortunately, a virus, like a lightning bolt, is not circumspect. If lightning sets your house on fire, it will probably torch much of the surrounding neighborhood as sparks come off your house.  Similarly, if you get the virus, it might not kill you, but it is likely to infect dozens of people around you and kill a few of them. Even if you are a gambler, the odds of coming out ahead without a vaccine are against you. Current estimates are that about one in ten of your neighbors has gotten the virus and about one in ten of those getting the virus has been permanently injured or killed by the virus. Research on the vaccines done by people with no vested interests indicates that the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Astra-Zeneca vaccines are safe and effective. If you do not get vaccinated, you may not die or be left crippled by Covid-19, but then again the odds of surviving the pandemic unscathed if unvaccinated are not looking good. And so, to quote Clint Eastwood, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya…?”

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.