Top of page

Image of a doctor and a nurse having strapped a baby into an xray machine
Chicago, Illinois. Provident Hospital. Baby being x-rayed. Jack Delano, 1942

How Past Medical Practices Demonstrate the Changing Nature of Scientific Ideas

Share this post:

This post is by Kelsey Beeghly, the 2023-2024 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Comparing common medical practices from the past to our current technology can be an engaging way to share about the changing nature of science.

X-Rays

In 1895, German engineer and physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the X-ray, and shortly thereafter it was widely used within the United States for a number of different purposes. However, not much was yet known about the dangers posed by X-rays. Show students the photograph of the baby being X-rayed and allow them time to observe it.

  • What do they notice first?
  • What do they think is happening in the photo?
  • If a photo was taken of a child receiving an X-ray today, how would it look different from this one? Why?

Students might research the uses of and the dangers associated with ionizing radiation to guide their responses.

Advertisement encouraging people to get feet xrayed when trying on shoes
Shoes For the Entire Family. Roanoke Rapids herald. March 23, 1944

This newspaper advertisement may surprise students. Ask them to identify the scientific claims being made in the advertisement, evidence provided to support those claims, and reasoning that could explain how the evidence supports the claim. How strong is its scientific argument for promoting X-ray shoe fitting service? Challenge students to consider who made the ad and for what purposes. Do they trust this as a source for scientific information? Extend these ideas to current advertisements, such as those with exaggerated or misleading scientific claims.

This research guide identifies additional material related to X-rays in the Chronicling America historic newspapers.

Fever Therapy

Image of doctor standing next to patient in tube like structure.
Chicago, Illinois. Provident Hospital. Dr. Harold Thatcher administering fever therapy to a patient. Jack Delano, 1942

Show students one or more of the photographs about fever therapy and ask them to describe what is happening in the images. Encourage students to explain the cause and effect of raising body temperature on bacterial infections and other diseases.

Image from newspaper with two doctors standing next to a person in a tube like structure
Machine Converts Man into Electromagnet. The Nome daily nugget. April 16, 1937

Ask students if they think the headline “Machine Converts Man into Electromagnet” would encourage or discourage people to try fever therapy. Do they think this article, “How to Keep Well,” is more successful in explaining the benefits of fever therapy than the first one listed?

Nurse and doctor standing with person in fever therapy box
Fever machine used to kill germs. 1935

Encourage students to compare fever therapy to antibiotics, considering the pros and cons of each method. If they bring up antibiotic resistance, share “Beware of Breeding Outlaw Germs.

In health and medicine, the appearance that both medical practices and safety standards are changing may cause some people to question the reliability of new practices. In addition, the media may not accurately portray these changes.  In reality, scientists are involved in peer review, conversations with other scholars, and testing to ensure new treatments are safe. The work of scientists and the tradition of testing and collaboration leads to new creative ways to solve problems, including using radiation to treat cancer, creating antibiotics, and banning practices proven to be harmful, like X-ray shoe fitting. Invite students to reflect on the scientific mindset of being open to change when presented with new evidence. Is this a strength or a weakness of science? Why? What primary source evidence of other past medical practices or discoveries might you investigate to support your position?

Do you enjoy these posts? Subscribe! You’ll receive free teaching ideas and primary sources from the Library of Congress.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.


Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.