- Historic Sites
He excelled at business and made Macy's highly profitable. But Nathan Straus was even better at giving away his earnings to help people in need.
July/august 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 5
As if the afflictions already mentioned were not bad enough, tuberculosis, the Victorians’ “dreaded dark disease,” can be carried by milk as well, and worse, it is one of the few diseases that can get past nature’s defenses and be directly transmitted through breastfeeding. Cows are as susceptible to TB as humans and often show few symptoms until they are near death.
For these reasons, milk, the staff of life to the young, was also the sower of death among urban children in nineteenth-century America. In the 1850s fewer than half the children born in New York City lived to see their fifth birthdays, and no one knew why. Enter Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch.
In the 1850s and 1860s Pasteur demonstrated that microorganisms were responsible for fermentation in wine and beer, for spoilage in milk, and for several diseases, including chicken cholera and anthrax. In 1882 Koch found the organism that caused tuberculosis. The germ theory of disease was born.
In the early 1890s Nathan Straus kept a “high-bred cow” at his camp in the Adirondacks in order to supply the household with good, clean milk. Suddenly the apparently healthy cow sickened and died. The autopsy revealed tuberculosis, and Straus was appalled.
It was not then certain that bovine TB was the same as the human variety; still, to Straus, who had no scientific training, “It was inconceivable . .. that the milk from tuberculous cows could be a safe food in its raw state.” Straus also knew there was a solution at hand. Pasteur had shown that heating liquids to a point below boiling and holding them there for a period of time killed most disease-causing microorganisms, including Koch’s deadly Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
Straus immediately saw to it that his own children drank pasteurized milk and characteristically set to work both to provide it to needy children and to have the process legally mandated for all milk sold. He set up milk stations in poor areas in New York City to give away pasteurized milk, and proof of the efficacy of the program was not long in coming. In 1891 fully 24 percent of babies bom in New York City died before age one. But of the 20,111 children fed on pasteurized milk supplied by Nathan Straus over a four-year period, only 6 died.
There is no statue to Nathan Straus in New York. But there are thousands of memorials to him in every American city.
In 1898 Straus served as the president of the city’s board of health. He immediately donated pasteurization equipment to the city’s orphan’s asylum. This grim institution received children abandoned by or removed from their families, so it is not surprising that they had a death rate four times that of children in general. In 1897, a typical year, 44 percent of the children housed there died. In 1898, with the introduction of pasteurized milk the only change, the death rate at the asylum plunged to 20 percent.
With results like this, one would think that pasteurization would have swept the nation. Instead it faced opposition from milk distributors and bureaucrats, among others. At one point Straus was even arrested for “adulterating” milk because he supplied mothers with infant formula. But he persevered. In 1908, when the infant death rate had been cut in half by voluntary pasteurization, Chicago became the first city to require it, and New York finally followed suit in 1914.
During his crusade Straus established at his own expense 297 milk stations in thirty-six cities. Over the course of twenty-five years, 24,009,498 glasses and bottles of safe milk were dispensed. The national death rate for children fell from 125.1 per thousand in 1891 to 15.8 in 1925. Altogether it is estimated that the efforts of Nathan Straus directly saved the lives of 445,800 children.
Despite these prodigious outside activities he remained active in the management of Macy’s until 1914 and retired from business completely only in 1925 when he was seventy-seven. When he died in 1931 his estate amounted to a million dollars, and he left not a penny of it to charity, explaining in his will that “what you give for the cause of charity in health is gold, what you give in sickness is silver, and what you give in death is lead.”
Today New York City has a touching memorial to Isidor Straus and his wife—they who loved honor and each other more than life itself—but there is none to Nathan. In a larger sense, however, there are thousands of memorials in every neighborhood of every city in the country. As Adm. George Dewey explained at the ground-breaking ceremony for one of the milk stations, “If all the little children whose lives [Straus] saved could mass themselves around the building now to be erected [he] would have the most splendid memorial ever made to man.”
So the next time you hear the laugh of a child or look into a little face shining with health, remember Nathan Straus, a saint who was, as it happens, a businessman.