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July 9, 2008

Exposing Poverty and Inspiring Medical Humanitarianism

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: University of Michigan, Center for the History of Medicine, Ann Arbor (Dr Markel); and O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC (Mr Gostin).

JAMA. 2008;300(2):209-211. doi:10.1001/jama.2008.45

Newspaper headlines and television reports are disturbing and mind-numbing: Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, the Myanmar cyclone, earthquakes in China, genocide in Darfur. A unifying theme of these tragedies is how often they are met by shrugged shoulders, glazed eyes, or complete indifference, proof positive of the aphorism “one half of the world knows not how the other lives.”

Although Rabelais1 coined this adage in 1532, Jacob A. Riis made it a household expression in his 1890 magnum opus, How the Other Half Lives,2 in which he exposed the horrible living conditions of New York City's Lower East Side, one of the most crowded areas in the world and most famous immigrant ghettos in human history. With more than 523 inhabitants per acre, this neighborhood of less than 1 square mile of tenements and poverty was largely ignored by other New Yorkers, not to mention the millions of Americans who lived west of the Hudson River.