A Good Time to Be Born: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future

A Good Time to Be Born: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future

by Perri Klass


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The fight against child mortality that transformed parenting, doctoring, and the way we live.

Only one hundred years ago, in even the world’s wealthiest nations, children died in great numbers—of diarrhea, diphtheria, and measles, of scarlet fever and tuberculosis. Throughout history, culture has been shaped by these deaths; diaries and letters recorded them, and writers such as Louisa May Alcott, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Eugene O’Neill wrote about and mourned them. Not even the powerful and the wealthy could escape: of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s four children, only one survived to adulthood, and the first billionaire in history, John D. Rockefeller, lost his beloved grandson to scarlet fever. For children of the poor, immigrants, enslaved people and their descendants, the chances of dying were far worse.

The steady beating back of infant and child mortality is one of our greatest human achievements. Interweaving her own experiences as a medical student and doctor, Perri Klass pays tribute to groundbreaking women doctors like Rebecca Lee Crumpler, Mary Putnam Jacobi, and Josephine Baker, and to the nurses, public health advocates, and scientists who brought new approaches and scientific ideas about sanitation and vaccination to families. These scientists, healers, reformers, and parents rewrote the human experience so that—for the first time in human memory—early death is now the exception rather than the rule, bringing about a fundamental transformation in society, culture, and family life.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393609998
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/13/2020
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,120,365
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.80(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Perri Klass is professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University, codirector of NYU Florence, and national medical director of Reach Out and Read. She writes the weekly column The Checkup for the New York Times.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Waning of Child Mortality and the New Expectations of Parenthood 1

Part I "The Desolation of That Empty Cradle"

Chapter 1 Postmortem Poetry and Comfort Books: Literary Echoes of Child Mortality 17

Chapter 2 "Ma'am, Have You Ever Lost a Child?": Child Death in Civil War America 38

Part II "The Birth of a Great and New Idea"

Chapter 3 "We Might Rather Wonder That Any Survive": Mortality, Miasmas, and Mothers Milk 71

Chapter 4 "Each Has a Right to Live": Educating Mothers and Keeping Babies Alive 102

Chapter 5 "The Plague Among Children": Diphtheria and the Doctors 135

Chapter 6 "Most Dreaded of All the Diseases": Scarlet Fever, Strep, and Antibiotics 156

Part III "What Marvellous Days"

Chapter 7 "Strides of Modern Medical Science": Preventing Polio, Treating Tuberculosis 191

Chapter 8 The Incubator Show: Life and Death in the Delivery Room and the Nursery 215

Chapter 9 "Something Children Always Have": Measles and Chicken Pox 244

Chapter 10 "Safe to Sleep": Postwar Parents, Postwar Pediatricians 272

Conclusion: The Promise of Safety 298

Acknowledgments 307

Notes 315

Further Reading 358

Index 362

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