Infectious Diseases, Science Literacy, and Citizen Behavior: Helping Students Make Connections Using Historical Newspaper Articles  

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

In the January 2021 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features three historical newspaper articles on the topic of measles and actions citizens could take to protect themselves and their neighbors. The article also suggests teaching strategies such as close textual analysis and comparing and contrasting to help students gain insights into the historical connections between science literacy and citizen behavior.

Each article was published in a different time period, as medical experts developed new understandings and methods for countering infectious diseases.

  • In “Measles Make Many Mothers Mourn,” The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, 1913, the U.S. Public Health Service sought to dissuade parents from hosting “measles parties,” where neighborhood children were intentionally infected “as a sort of ‘immunization’” against future bouts of the disease. (See previous blog post on this article).
  • In “Vaccinate Children Against Measles,” Montana farmer-stockman, 1955, the Montana Medical Association touted the use of gamma globulins, an antibody-rich blood protein, which could prevent or mitigate the severe effects of measles if administered soon enough after exposure.
  • And “Vaccine for the Prevention of Measles is Here,” The Sidney Herald, 1963,
    announced the availability of the first vaccine – “a live attenuated (weakened) virus” – that could prevent measles infection if administered prior to exposure.

Measles Makes Mothers Mourn. Bridgeport Evening Farmer, November 22, 1913

Vaccinate Children Against Measles. Montana Farmer-Stockman, April 15, 1955

Vaccine for the Prevention of Measles is Here. Sidney Herald, October 2, 1963

The article suggests that classes analyze the first newspaper article together, and then assign students one of the others. Students could then compare and contrast using the following focus areas:

  • Read the opening paragraph: How did science literacy and citizen behavior change with advances in scientific knowledge?
  • Read the full article: What science concepts are citizens required to understand?
  • What other connections can you identify involving science literacy and citizen behavior?

Possible student insights are also provided.  For example:

  • Individual beliefs and behaviors are often connected to civic principals. When a U.S. Public Health Service official writes: “It is little less than criminal to permit children known to have measles to come in contact with well children,” violation of a shared social contract could be implied.
  • Even as scientists developed new understandings, traditional beliefs were often slow to change. The opening paragraph of each article shows that decades after initial warnings, “many people still regard[ed] measles lightly” (1963), since “we must all have the measles, so why worry about the disease” (1954).”
  • Over time, the level of scientific literacy demanded became increasingly sophisticated. While the 1913 article talked about “the infection of measles [being] found in the secretions from the nose and throat,” later articles discuss concepts such as “gamma globulins,” or “live attenuated (weakened) virus[es],” which require a more in-depth understanding of the human immune system.

Finally, teachers can encourage students to reflect on how their insights relate to current issues involving scientific literacy and citizen behavior.  We hope that you will check out this article in Social Education and try the activities with your students!

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