Proverbs to Cherish: ‘An Ounce of Prevention’

Proverbs to Cherish: ‘An Ounce of Prevention’
A fire engine purchased by George Washington in 1775 in Philadelphia, at the Friendship Fire Co. in Alexandria. Va. (Library of Congress)

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is one of those proverbs that many only half-know. In fact, probably most people can only recite, “An ounce of prevention.”

The story behind this proverb and its potential for diverse application are fascinating.

In my first piece on proverbs, I talked about proverbs as a sort of dying art. They are something that the generations before us have preserved—in some cases for a millennium or two.

And they contain so much wisdom that can help guide our lives. Some may feel that scripture alone can serve that function. Yes, for sure. But the neat thing about proverbs is that many originate from scripture. They are pithy encapsulations of truth that are meant to be incorporated into daily speech. They are a way of keeping these truths alive in our thoughts and words, and especially a way of educating the next generation.

So from that perspective, they are well worth reflecting on and, even more, using. Otherwise, they may disappear, along with many of the other treasures of our culture that are being expunged.

And now for the story behind how this proverb came to be.

It traces back to Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, and an anonymous letter he sent to a newspaper.

But though the letter was initially signed with a simple “A.A.,” Franklin was ultimately credited with it.

In 1733, Franklin, a Philadelphian at the time, had visited Boston and was impressed with one of its features: fire preparedness. So the original use of the proverb wasn’t about disease prevention, but about fire.

Franklin, being a reflective person who wanted the best for his then-city of residence, observed the methods of fire prevention that Boston had developed, and hoped that Philadelphia could adopt the same. So he wrote his letter to a newspaper he owned, The Pennsylvania Gazette.

One of America’s most prominent papers at the time, the Gazette had been bought by Franklin and a partner when it was floundering, and they turned it into a success.

Benjamin Franklin has been called the Founding Father of Firefighting. (Library of Congress)
Benjamin Franklin has been called the Founding Father of Firefighting. (Library of Congress)
His letter, published on Feb. 4, 1735, was titled “Protection of Towns from Fire.” It admonished that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and then went into the ways the city should prepare for fire.

Here is an interesting excerpt of his letter, oozing with the humble charm of the day. Note that the “city in a neighboring province” refers to Boston.

“As to our Conduct in the Affair of Extinguishing Fires, tho’ we do not want Hands or Good-will, yet we seem to want Order and Method, and therefore I believe I cannot do better than to offer for our Imitation, the Example of a City in a Neighbouring Province. There is, as I am well inform’d, a Club or Society of active Men belonging to each Fire Engine; whose Business is to attend all Fires with it whenever they happen; and to work it once a Quarter, and see it kept in order.”

Some have termed Franklin the Founding Father of firefighting, as his recommendations led to the founding of a fire company—Philadelphia’s Union Fire Co.—that became the standard for volunteer fire company organization.

So for yet another reason, we owe this founding father a debt of gratitude. (And of course also the firefighters that have our backs today wherever we may live!)

Thinking about how prevention plays a role in life, there is of course fire, and the use of “cure” in the proverb naturally calls to mind illness—like those annual checkups with your doctor—but prevention also comes into play in so many other areas of life.

When you’re brushing your teeth, isn’t that an ounce of prevention? And changing your car’s oil or attending to that peeling exterior paint before the rain gets through to the wood, and so on.

But, as in my last piece, I once again can’t help but think about the importance of this proverb in guiding the next generation. There is the restricting of kids’ use of technology, educating them about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, or even limiting who they get to spend time with, and the list goes on.

Those little moments of discomfort where you apply an ounce of prevention, in terms of their upbringing, are just so incredibly worth it in the end. If it’s too little, too late, the situation can be hard to turn around.

Just like Franklin was getting at, it’s better to prevent fires than spend time and effort putting them out. Much less clean up and repair after a disaster. So the next time you’re wondering whether to take that awkward step and draw that awkward line with the little ones—or teens—in your life, think of Franklin’s words of wisdom, and you may find you have the strength to do so.

Angelica Reis loves nature, volunteer work, her family, and her faith. She is an English teacher with a background in classical music, and enjoys uncovering hidden gems, shining them up, and sharing them with readers.
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