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Primary Sources in Science Classrooms: Concussions, a Century of Controversy, and Football

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This post was written by Trey Smith, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Science Teacher in Residence.

In 1905, nineteen high school and college students died after sustaining football-related injuries. An article in the Salt Lake Tribune outlines efforts to address deaths and injuries associated with football. A century later, controversy persists concerning concussions.

Salt Lake City Tribune, December 17, 1905
Salt Lake City Tribune, December 17, 1905

Minneapolis Journal, November 27, 1905
Minneapolis Journal, November 27, 1905

Science and health teachers can tackle brain science using current and historical primary sources about football. Teachers can arrange a gallery walk, jigsaw activity, or stations with primary sources to tease out the specifics of the events of 1905.

Select questions from the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Newspapers to elicit students’ observations, reflections and questions about the reports. Then students will want to investigate further, perhaps exploring how the brain is affected by traumatic injury. Primary sources about football injuries can kick off learning about the brain, its regions, and its circuit, as well as about information processing in complex organisms.

Connecting brain science and football can engage students as they apply classroom learning to real-world concerns:

  • How do the quantity and quality of today’s injuries, especially those to the head, compare to those of the past?
  • What more do we know medically and scientifically? What do scientists still not know?
Princeton-Yale Football Game November 14, 1903

Inquiry into football and the brain could include a comparison between football of a century prior and the modern game. A 1903 video recording by Thomas Edison of a game between Princeton and Yale offers a look at football before the nationwide uproar.

  • What stands out as the style of play?
  • How does it compare to today?
  • How might the style of play affect human health and the brain specifically?

Check out a recent blog post by Tom Bober, the Library’s audio-visual Teacher in Residence, on analyzing this and other videos.

Students might also look at public policy and legislation. President Roosevelt was involved in the 1905 reforms. In 2014, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation released a Report on the Youth Sports Concussion Act that addressed the sale of products claiming to reduce concussions. While the bill described by the committee report never became law, it provides an example response to the complex issue of football-related injuries.

Youth Sports Concussion Act
Youth Sports Concussion Act

Teachers using problem-based learning models may assign students stakeholder roles: player, coach, parent of a player, league president, legislator, doctor, neuroscientist, equipment engineer, or even U.S. President. In 1905, just as is the case today, not everyone agreed that football should be seen as dangerous. Students could study the issues and advocate for a path forward. Students might design solutions using engineering principles or engage in arguments about public, organization, or league policy using evidence.

Advances in neuroscience and improved—but still incomplete—understanding of the brain require greater attention from science teachers. What other aspects of the controversy surrounding football might lead to deeper learning about the brain?


  1. Great post, Trey and Danna! I’m going to share this with science, health and physical education friends to remind them that the Library of Congress has resources for every content area!

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