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The Best Medicine: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future


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.


Previously published in hardcover as A Good Time to Be Born.

“Not too long ago parents lived with the near certainty of losing a child or two; Perri Klass captures the drama of science and society’s triumph over that abysmal reality. As we grapple with new and unimaginable scourges, the lessons in this gripping, personal and beautifully researched chronicle could not be more relevant.”

—Abraham Verghese, MD, author of Cutting for Stone


“All readers with an interest in the history of health care—and all parents who bite their nails over the relatively rare dangers facing their children now—will be riveted by this moving and compassionate account of how a common tragedy was transformed into an unusual one.”

—Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down


“With her broad pediatric knowledge and warm understanding of parental attachments, Perri Klass tells the dramatic story of how medical science transformed childhood in the twentieth century . . . . an important contribution to the history of childhood that can provide comfort and insight to all of us.”

—Paula S. Fass, author of The End of American Childhood

“In today’s world of pandemics and medical alarm, it is especially comforting to look to history for the paths that lay ahead. . . Starting at a time when Americans helplessly accepted the death of their children as a cruel fact of Nature, Klass beautifully demonstrates how the fusion of medical science and public health led to the vaccines, antibiotics, safety measures, and self-help volumes that saved countless young lives while revolutionizing the ways in which we map our children’s future. Elegantly written, filled with memorable characters and events, [this book] is the perfect prescription for the uncertainties of our time.”

David Oshinsky,
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Polio: An American Story


“. . . the pediatrician Perri Klass describes how the world—and with it, parenting—has been transformed by declining infant and child mortality over the past century.”

—Kate Julian, The Atlantic


"An ambitious, elegant meditation...[Klass] takes the most complex human patterns of all ― history, medicine, politics, art ― and knits them into something unique and beautiful."


—Christie Watson, New York Times

"A powerful story of the right of children to live and thrive from birth."


Kirkus Reviews

"The result of Klass’s erudition and nuance is a fascinating look at a seldom-sung but profound change in the human condition."


Publishers Weekly

"Klass masterfully introduces readers to the people coming up with solutions for many of the dangers of childhood and shows how the pediatric specialty over time has worked to improve children’s lives. Essential reading for parents."


—Margaret Henderson, Library Journal

By: Perri Klass
Paperback; 400 pgs
Publication Date: April 19, 2022

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