September 15, 2020
A GOOD TIME TO BE BORN
How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future
Author: Perri Klass
Review Issue Date: September 15, 2020
Online Publish Date: September 1, 2020
Price ( Hardcover ): $28.95
Publication Date: October 13, 2020
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-393-60999-8
A history of the scientific discoveries and public health mobilizations that made the world safer for children.
As late as the beginning of the 20th century, writes NYU journalism and pediatrics professor Klass, “childhood death was always there, in the shadows at the edge of the family landscape.” Children would die, “regularly and unsurprisingly,” from a host of contagions and infections, often in the forms of epidemics such as typhoid, cholera, polio, smallpox, and diphtheria. The author, a smooth storyteller, traces the arc of medical advancement targeted at that vulnerable population, suggesting that no segment of society was exempt. However, it was also clear that the poor, immigrants, Indigenous peoples, and African Americans would suffer the most. In a remarkable fusion of science, public health, private institutions, and medicine, a slow but steadily growing movement brought necessary sanitation upgrades to cities and advanced understanding of bacteriology, virology, nutrition, and pharmacology. Klass effectively situates childhood deaths and the growth of pediatric medicine in both social and cultural contexts; one interesting section examines the subject via literature, including “sentimental poetry” and even gallows humor. “In that lost world in which dead children and mourning parents were routine and regular parts of life,” writes Klass, “morbid humor clearly had its place.” With steady narrative momentum, the author follows the long road that led to germ theory and the growing belief that it was “not just a parental obligation to prevent [childhood death] but a social responsibility.” Klass also chronicles the egregious missteps: eugenics, social Darwinism, and the racist, classist beliefs that hampered treatment for the poor and people of color. The author completes the picture with a range of subjects, including the dangers of childbirth; ethical issues in the neonatal unit; parents who don’t believe in vaccinations; psychosocial problems, including the shaming of “refrigerator mothers”; and the scourges of measles, chickenpox, polio, and tuberculosis.
A powerful story of the right of children to live and thrive from birth.
Medicine’s campaign against child mortality has succeeded magnificently yet left parents more anxious than ever, according to this probing history. Pediatrician and novelist Klass (Treatment Kind and Fair) recaps the salient data—in 1900, 10% of American infants died before their first birthday; now 0.6% do—and the many breakthroughs responsible, including the pasteurization of milk; the development of vaccines and antibiotics; and the invention of incubators, pediatric surgical techniques, and neonatal intensive care units. She also explores the cultural impact of child mortality and the fight against it, from the preponderance of ailing and dying children in 19th-century literature (such as Little Women, which drew on Louisa May Alcott’s own sister’s death from scarlet fever), to the late 19th- and early-20th-century craze for incubator exhibitions, as seen at the World Exposition of 1896, where, before huge crowds, babies “borrowed” from the Berlin Charity Hospital were displayed inside a “child hatchery.” Ironically, Klass notes, as childhood became almost immune from serious health risks, doctors and parents responded not by relaxing but by shifting their concern to vanishingly unlikely risks, like vaccine-induced fatalities or strangulation by window-blind cords. The result of Klass’s erudition and nuance is a fascinating look at a seldom-sung but profound change in the human condition. (Oct.)