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Science, Civics, and Primary Sources: A Measles Debate One Hundred Years Ago

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This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

Analyzing historic newspaper articles can provide students with unique insights into the relationship between scientific literacy and civic behavior. Consider this 1913 article from The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, in which the U.S. Public Health Service  attempts to discourage the popular practice of “measles parties.” In such gatherings, parents would intentionally expose their children to measles so they could “get over it…as a sort of ‘immunization’.”

The Bridgeport evening farmer., November 22, 1913, Page 2

Invite students to analyze passages from the article, identifying connections between scientific literacy and civic behavior. Focus questions might include:

  • Whose interests are being discussed at various points in the article – the individual or the community?
  • What civic responsibilities, if any, are implied once individuals become scientifically literate?
  • What role does the governmental agency authoring the piece play? What rhetorical strategies are used to influence behavior?

The article opens with a melodramatic account of a measles party and its unfortunate aftermath. In the story, “Little Mary’s mother…considered measles as inevitable as teething. She thought it would be a good time to … get all over it before the ‘bridge season’ began, so she took Mary over to play with Johnnie just as soon as she heard that he had the measles.” But while Johnnie recovered, Mary had “such a hard time breathing that she had to be propped up in the bed, and every time she coughed she cried out with the pain that racked her poor little chest.” Soon, “Little Mary’s blue eyes were no longer bright, and one morning all the pain and suffering went away – only Mary never awoke.” In this passage, students might identify a highly emotional appeal targeted at parents’ fears and self-interest to protect their children.

Meanwhile, a more clinical, reasoned tone is used to discuss measles mortality statistics and scientific research. The reader learns that 1 out of 10 U.S. children contracting measles had died – over 11,000 deaths in 1900. The article notes that while scientists did not yet know what causes measles, they “do know that the infection…is found in the secretions from the nose and throat during the first stages of the disease.” Therefore, “when it is known that measles exists in a community, no child having a bad cough should be allowed to come in contact with other children…It is little less than criminal to permit children known to have measles to come in contact with well children during the first three days of the cough [emphasis added]. ”

Once again, encourage students to reflect on whose interests are appealed to – the individual or community?  What persuasive strategies are used – emotional or logical? Further, students might reflect: to what extent does scientific awareness bind citizens in an implied social contract? What role do federal agencies such as the U.S. Public Health Department play in facilitating appropriate civic behavior?  Students might also make similar connections between scientific literacy and civic responsibility today.

Let us know in the comments what connections your students make!

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