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Map showing distribution points A map showing the distribution points of elixir sulfanilamide poison and deaths resulting from it. The chart was prepared by the Food and Drug Administration
Map Showing the Distribution of Massingill's Elixir Sulfanilamide. From Evening Star, January 1, 1939

Concepts Across the Sciences: Patterns

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This post is by Jacqueline Katz, the 2022-2023 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Patterns are repeating designs or series of numbers or events; patterns can be identified, classified and evaluated across all disciplines of science. Scientists use these processes to answer questions and solve problems. The importance of pattern identification and evaluation became clear when I stumbled upon the newspaper article, “Medical History Records Frantic Search by Federal Men for ‘Death Elixir.’” The article explains how dozens of people were experiencing “agonizing abdominal pains, kidney paralysis, convulsions—then death” in the late 1930s. The distribution of these unfortunate occurrences was organized onto a map and patterns were identified.

Students in a biology or chemistry class could recreate the problem of the ‘frantic search’ by using the map from the article. First provide students with the map, but remove the labels. Give them the primary source analysis tool and ask them to identify and record patterns in the observation column. They will likely identify three types of dots on the map and notice that many of them are clustered together. Prompt students to hypothesize what this map might be representing and why they think that.

After an initial round of observe-reflect-question and discussion, reveal the labels on the map and ask students to update their analysis tool as well as their predictions of what the map is representing. At this point students might recognize that deaths (large dots) are clustered around shipping points (small dots). Encourage students to develop predictions about what might have prompted the FDA to create this map and how scientists might use the patterns it reveals.

Map showing distribution points A map showing the distribution points of elixir sulfanilamide poison and deaths resulting from it. The chart was prepared by the Food and Drug Administration
Map Showing the Distribution of Massengill’s Elixir Sulfanilamide. From Evening Star, January 1, 1939

Next, provide students the article text to read, chunking it as appropriate. Expand the discussion of patterns:

  • A chemistry class might focus on the discussion of sulfanilamide’s solubility. Challenge students to explain why this drug may not dissolve easily in common solvents such as alcohol or water.
  • A biology class might explore the connection between diethylene glycol and the symptoms patients experienced. What biological processes could this drug impede to cause abdominal pain and kidney failure? What could be the mechanism of action? Students might channel their knowledge of enzymes or cellular respiration to generate predictions that answer these questions.
  • All classes could use this article to discuss science and ethics. Guide students to think about the patients described in the article. Ask what they notice about the various patient descriptions. What questions do the descriptions prompt? This will likely lead to a discussion of race and the inequities in medical care. The article can trigger discussions about the intersection between science and politics as well.

Direct students to re-read the article to identify the different governmental agencies that were involved in the race to track down the ‘public enemy.’ This might lead students to question the role these agencies play today. When discussing these governmental agencies, ask students what actions could be taken to prevent future occurrences like this. Students can conduct research to determine what the government of 1939 actually did in response.

This newspaper article highlights patterns in data and shows how cross-curricular concepts, as well as disciplinary content, ethics, and politics can be covered by exploring primary sources. Similarly rich conversations can occur by observing patterns in living things and geologic structures.

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Comments (3)

  1. Excellent post.

  2. Great post and a great resource!

  3. Wonderful ideas Jackie!

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