Our founding fathers were Penny Wise. They created the world's first decimal currency.

Sadly, we remain Pound Foolish. The rest of the world uses simple metric systems of measurement, while we Americans continue to struggle with yards, pounds, and tablespoons.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish. Time to wise up, America!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

When milligrams won out over drams

I just read an angry polemic that George Will wrote in 1992 about how the Commerce Department Gestapo was going to put up metric road signs, an attack on the American way of life, in an attempt to "Brusselize" the United States.

Short-sighted pundits like Will must be feeling a bit silly as they take their milligrams of medication. Or perhaps he converts this information into drams (1/16 ounce)and grains (1/27 dram). Quick now, how many grains in an ounce? Let's see. That's 27 x 16 x 16. Where's my slide rule?

1000 milligrams in a gram, any schoolchild around the world could state by the end of 3rd grade.

Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists made this leap in 1971. It took a while. The American Medical Association first adopted the metric system in the 1870's. The Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry of the American Medical Association adopted the metric system in 1944. But not until 1971 did a true conversion to the metric system take place, in prescribing and labeling. Does anyone feel that using milligrams in pharmaceuticals is the result of Gestapo tactics?

Well, what about liquid medicines? What does George Will do when he has a cough? Can he read the label of his medicine bottle without feeling that the government has invaded his home? I'll bet he just uses the handy dosage cup that came with the medication, pouring out the correct dosage in milliliters. We no longer dose ourselves in teaspoons and tablespoons. Lots of people used kitchen spoons to dose themselves; dosages were inaccurate.

And when he goes on a trip and wants to see whether he has enough liquid medication, he can do one simple computation: mL in the bottle divided by mL in one dose. What about the old way? How many teaspoons in 4 fluid ounces?  Surely you remember. You must have studied that in school.

Mr. Will would no doubt say that this conversion was adopted voluntarily, and that we should simply wait for the American people to speak up and ask for change. But for drug companies who had to change their manufacturing, packaging, and labeling, for pharmacists who had to throw away old measuring devices and purchase new ones, and for consumers who were used to teaspoons and drams, adopting the metric system was real change. They did it. We did it. And now we have a simpler, safer system.

Senior citizens talk about milligrams every day. I've never heard anyone long for the good old days when we measured in drams, grains, scruples, and minims. But you can read online about the advantages of the old apothecary system of measurement. Its complexity worldwide is shown on Wikipedia at this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apothecaries'_system

This chart showing the apothecary system comes from that Wikipedia page:
96 ʒ
5,760 gr.
8 ʒ
480 gr.
1 ʒ
60 gr.
20 gr.
metric equivalent
373 g
31.1 g
3.89 g
1.296 g
64.8 mg

Notice that on this chart there are 8 drams in an ounce, 3 scruples in a drams, and 20 grains in a scruple. What I was using above (16 drams per ounce, etc.) is from the Avoirdupois system. Seems like too many systems of measuring drugs might prove deadly!

George Will doesn't think we Americans should give up our traditional systems of measurement. Does he really not understand how this attitude limits our ability to conduct trade: raising the costs of goods we import, and making our exports either less desirable or more expensive to produce? Does he really not understand that change can be good?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent points! Wish we could forward this on to George Will!