• Kevin M. Baumlin, MD

Grandma was right all along.

I have spent my career as a medical researcher and emergency physician, but when it comes to warding off viruses, it turns out that my Grandma was the real expert.

Philomena Pusillo was born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York, just before the start of the Spanish Influenza pandemic. Her father, Louis Puscillo, born in Italy, married Josephine Soccino, a daughter of Italian immigrants. Louis came to America to create a new life for himself and the family he would create, but his young family soon faced a health threat that would eventually take the lives of up to 100 million people worldwide, including some 30,000 New Yorkers. Then, like today with the current COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts urged social distancing, wearing masks, and moving activities outside into the fresh air.

The need for fresh air didn’t stop when winter came to Brooklyn and people stayed inside more often. My great-grandparent’s apartment was heated with radiators, and that may have saved their lives and the lives of countless others. The steam heat made apartments extremely hot, but that was the point. Radiators were a form of heat meant to run with the windows wide open in order to encourage better ventilation and the circulation of fresh air that could help to fight the spread of viruses like the flu. Radiators became a staple of early 20th century architectural design and are part of the reason many of our ancestors lived through the pandemic of 1918-1920 (1).

The public health lessons of her childhood stuck with my Grandma and when my sister, brother and I visited her at her house in Perth Amboy, NJ during our own childhoods, we washed our hands- no arguing. And in the winters of my childhood, Grandma heated her own house with a kitchen stove and occasionally a small kerosene heater my dad kept filled up, but she left the windows wide open. And she knew best.

We knew her home would soon be warm, but the windows would be flung open to keep us healthy.

Today there is a renewed focus on fresh air activities. Outdoor dining and outdoor classrooms are prevalent. But we should also focus on the air in our living spaces. Proper ventilation can mitigate the airborne spread of disease and can save lives, just as it did a century ago. If you can open the window, do it.

Even with medical and pharmaceutical advances doctors like me use in the fight against COVID, the best prevention tips to fight this new pandemic came from my grandmother. Wash your hands, don’t congregate in large groups and open the window. For the safety of others around you wear a mask, especially when indoors in tight quarters. If and when a COVID vaccine becomes available, I will get it, but to better protect myself and my patients, I will still be heeding Grandma’s sound advice.

She was right about the windows. Maybe next we will find out Grandma’s stuffed shells really are the best medicine? I would be happy to write you a prescription for them.

1 - For more on the engineering advances that helped with public health, see:

Dan Holohan, The Lost Art of Steam Heating Revisited (Scotts Valley: CreateSpace, 2017).

See also Patrick Sisson, "Your Old Radiator Is a Pandemic-Fighting Weapon," CityLab, Bloomberg, August 5, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-05/the-curious-history-of-steam-heat-and-pandemics.

For more on airborne transmission of viruses indoors, see: Morawska, Lidia, et al. “How can airborne transmission of COVID-19 indoors be minimised?” Environment International Volume 142, September 2020, 105832.

The opinions expressed in this article do not represent those of the University of Pennsylvania Health System or the Perelman School of Medicine.

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