AMONG HISTORIANS -- especially those of the activist stripe who seek to spare us from repeating the sad follies of our past -- one of the more pitiable chapters of the 20th century is receiving fresh attention these days. .....And, yet again, it appears that lessons learned the hard way long ago are being ignored.
The story begins with a mysterious plague that gripped a U.S. city in the early 1900s.
Children were showing up in hospital clinics with inexplicable fevers, vomiting, bleeding from the gums, delirious with pain. Some were carried in comatose by weeping mothers.
By 1962, three decades after city recordkeeping began, the disease had killed 129 kids, although a great many more -- mostly "colored" toddlers -- undoubtedly went to their graves uncounted. Of the 773 known survivors, it was often said that some might have been better off dead, as the plague left them profoundly retarded, blind, deaf, unable to walk or talk. As they aged, some went mad and wound up confined to psychiatric hospitals.
The city was Baltimore.
The disease was lead paint poisoning.
Now, more than 50 years after the phrase "The Baltimore Experience" came into popular usage among doctors to describe the horrors that unfolded here, those dark early days of the lead paint plague are taking on new currency.
Attorneys in at least five states are pursuing lawsuits against some of the world's best known paint companies for allegedly ignoring the dangers of lead. And exhibit "A" in their case is Maryland's largest city - the nation's leading laboratory on the toxic effects of leaded paint through the first half of the 20th century.
Few other places in the U.S. contain such a wealth of historic and medical documentation on the disease, and few bear so many scars. For if any city was in a position to save its children, it was Baltimore. And Baltimore did not.
Banned from new paint by the U.S. Congress in 1978, lead had been under nearly constant assault in Baltimore for decades, straight through the end of Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr.'s administration in 1959. But he was to be the city's last great political crusader against the toxin.
With his passing from office, a 30-year movement to remove the crumbling layers of poison from the walls of Baltimore's slum rowhouses ground to a halt under successive mayors.
Today, more than 1,000 of the city's kids - mostly black and poor - continue to ingest brain-damaging doses of lead paint chips and dust every year. And the vast majority are being poisoned in the same squalid rowhouse neighborhoods that claimed so many lives nearly a century ago.
It is the legacy of decades of indifference by elected officials that stands in stark contrast to the heroic efforts of the city's doctors and renowned medical institutions to stop the scourge.
Through their work, the fundamental medical questions about the cause and prevention of the disease were answered long ago. Through their work, lead poisoning might easily have gone the way of such crippling childhood afflictions as polio, tuberculosis and meningitis.
But unlike diseases, lead poisoning does not reap its victims evenly. Carrying no threat of contagion, it strikes mostly at poor children trapped in substandard rental houses built before 1960.
As the 19th and 20th centuries progressed in Baltimore, as one impoverished ethnic group after another moved through the slums above and below North Avenue, this disease of neglect cut them down. At one time or other, the city's Irish, Italian and Greek communities each has had its sad experience with lead poisoning.
But none has borne the brunt as long as the city's African-American population - whose children make up more than four out of five lead poisoning victims today.
It is the deaths and retardation of black children that form the central narrative threads of the "The Baltimore Experience."
It is the story of a city within a city - one white and relatively healthy, the other black and perpetually ill from living in what have always been among the nation's worst slums.
Built or converted almost overnight to house the thousands of European immigrants and freed black slaves who flowed into Baltimore in the Civil War era, the east- and west-side ghettos were monuments to racial segregation and engines of infectious disease.
Unheated, unplumbed, poorly constructed and owned almost entirely by speculator landlords, they were built for quick profit. And they were not built to last.
By the beginning of the 20th century, their occupants were mostly black.
Doctors battle lead
In the annals of epidemiology - the study of diseases and their causes - the desperate struggle of Baltimore's doctors to save the city's children from the ravages of a hidden killer in the slums ranks among the more compelling sagas in American public health.