Swatting the Fly: Conceptualizing Problems and Solutions around the Spread of Disease

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

The United States has faced many public health challenges throughout its history, and studying historical primary sources can provide insights into how such challenges are identified and addressed. Although a single source might paint an especially vivid and compelling picture of a problem, looking at multiple sources can help students discover that a single problem might have been portrayed in different ways from different perspectives.

Saint Sam and the Dragon. Frank A. Nankivell, 1912

Consider this 1912 Puck magazine cover depicting “Saint Sam and the Dragon. A challenge to that greatest of public enemies, the disease-breeding fly.” Invite students to examine the image and share their observations. Students will likely notice the large fly emerging from a garbage can, its monstrous size, and the prone child lying at its feet, lending it a menacing character. Some will notice the symbolism on the knight’s outfit, such as the red, white and blue helmet, and the cape with stars. The knight is located downhill from the fly – perhaps at a fighting disadvantage – and the horse is reeling back as the fly advances. On the knight’s lance are the words “Anti-Fly Crusade.”

After students make their observations, ask them to summarize the problem and solution depicted in the cartoon. One response may be that in 1912, there was a significant problem with flies spreading disease, and that the solution proposed by the cartoon is to kill them.

Analyzing additional newspaper articles from the time period can help students see the issue in more nuanced terms. Ask students to summarize the problem and solution discussed by select additional newspaper articles.

“Great Anti-Fly Crusade Begins,” Meade County News, Meade, Kan., 1913

Great Anti-Fly Crusade Begins” reinforces the narrative of the Puck cartoon. Depending on your students and situation, assign the entire article or just the first three paragraphs. According to the article, while experts have long known that the common housefly spreads disease, “never before has an entire nation awakened to the necessity of fighting the fly to the death; of driving it out of existence.”

Students reading the whole article may note that this quest to hunt the fly to extinction will largely be carried out through individual efforts. For instance, “newspapers of Worcester, Mass., offered money prizes for the largest quantity of flies caught.” A twelve-year-old boy won $100 for catching ninety-five quarts’ worth, though “it was found out later that in order to succeed he had actually gone into the business of breeding flies.”

Garbage Dumped in Alcaniz Street in Violation of Law and Menace to Health approaches the issue differently. Focus student analysis on the headlines, as well as the two paragraphs in the top box. While the article makes a clear connection between flies and the spread of disease, it presents flies as a symptom of the larger waste management issue. The solution is not simply a matter of individual effort, but also of larger political action.

As students compare and contrast the articles, challenge them to identify insights emerging from their analysis. How do the differences and contradictions lead to larger understandings? Let us know what your students come up with!


Happy Birthday to the Amazing Periodic Table!

The year 2019 marks the 150th anniversary of Dmitry Mendeleyev’s ground-breaking Periodic Table of the Elements, and provides an opportunity both to celebrate Mendeleyev’s historic accomplishment and to reflect on important lessons that students can learn about the nature of science from his experiences.