X is for X-Ray into American Medicine
We’ve all had to go to the doctor at some point, but when
we’re getting poked and prodded, we don’t usually think about the history
behind the science. From cells and medicines to X-Rays and MRIs, America has played
a big role in making medicine what it is today.
Because history should be taught from a holistic point of view, I’m going to include some resources addressing the contributions of various groups, in addition to more traditional history lessons.
Three of the Most Important Diseases of American History
Disease has played a role in the form and function of our country since before we were even a country. When Europeans first came here, they accidentally brought a disease called smallpox, which killed many of the Native Peoples already living here.
At that point, they didn’t know about germs, and how people
became immune to certain diseases. If you weren’t sick, how could you carry a
disease? Since smallpox was already well known in Europe, most settlers were already able to have the germs in their bodies without getting sick. Sadly, it was unknown to the Americas until then, and the Native People grew ill, because they had no immunity. This led to fear and a heightened dislike of settlers.
It wasn’t until many years later that doctors were able to prevent the spread of smallpox through staying clean, better medicines and a special vaccine.
Although there had been many other diseases present, the next illness that had a big effect on American history was the Flu of 1918. That virus became so powerful that it actually interrupted World War I, because so many soldiers became sick and died from it. An estimated 15% of the world’s population fell to it that year.
Although there had been many medical advances up to that point, the doctors of the day didn’t know how to stop it. That lead people to blame their enemies of the day, the Germans, for spreading the flu on purpose. Those people didn’t know the Germans were hit just as hard as everyone else was.
When summer came, the flu went away, but the fear stayed. It wasn’t until many years later that a breakout happened again, and scientists started researching it with more modern methods. Through a lot of hard work, they learned how the flu germ works, and every year, do their best to make a vaccine to help people avoid getting sick.
The flu of 1918 helped us learn how important it is to wash our hands all year round. It also helped us learn why we should cover our noses and mouths with a tissue every time we sneeze or cough.
Even though that one year of flu was very scary, it didn’t last as long as some diseases did.
The third most well known disease, and the one that has been mostly gotten rid of, is polio. Polio was virus that caused people to be paralyzed, or unable to move their muscles.
In children, sometimes it paralyzed the breathing muscles, which is why so many had to be put in a machine called the iron lung. The iron lung helped them breath with special vacuum pumps, and many of them survived because of that machine. Other kids had to use leg braces in order to walk, and some were never able to walk again.
In the early 1950s, scientists were still trying to figure out how to make a good vaccine to stop the spread of polio.
In 1951, a lady named Henrietta Lacks got very sick with cancer. Before she died, a doctor took some cells from one of her tumors to see if he would be able to keep them growing in a lab. To his surprise, it worked. Her cells were the only ones scientists of the day could do that with. They’re still used today, but now they’re called HeLa cells. They’re also partially
responsible for getting rid of polio and changing the world of medicine.
|Dyed HeLa cells.|
A scientist called Jonas Salk was able to use the HeLa cells to develop the very first polio vaccine. Even though this vaccine helped stop the spread of the disease, the first shot only lasted for five months, so people had to keep going back to stay immune. Later, Albert Sabin made a new version of the vaccine that can be taken by mouth, and helped keep polio from hurting as many people.
Even though there are still scary diseases today, scientists and doctors will keep working very hard to help us stay healthy.
Angels of Mercy: The Army Nurses of WWII, by Betsy Kuhn – This book gives a factual account of what army nurses did during WWII and includes some historical pictures.
Civil War Doctor: the Story of Mary Walker, by Carla Joinson – A biographical story of Mary Walker, a woman who lived during the Civil War who wanted to become a doctor when only men were expected to pursue this profession. This book overlaps the history of medicine with the history of women’s rights.
African American Healers, by Clinton Cox – About African Americans who have made contributions to the world of medicine.
Purple Death: The Mysterious Flu of 1918, by David Getz – A book about the 1918 flu, geared towards grades 2-5.
Blue, by Joyce Moyer Hostetter – This is a historical fiction book about a young girl who lived during the polio epidemic, and how she overcame the challenges of the day.
A Very Short History of Vaccines in America from FRONTLINE PBS
Medical History of the Mahoning Valley
Although the following YouTube channels don’t currently have a lot on medical history, they’re still good resources. They update regularly, so there may be related videos posted soon:
|A doctor’s office from the late 19th century.|
Hands on goodies
Balloon Air Pressure Magic – You can tie this experiment into an explanation of how
the iron lung worked to keep polio and other patients alive when they couldn?t breathe
on their own, since it worked on the vacuum principle this is.
Bread Mold Experiment – Although penicillin wasn’t discovered in the US,
American scientists have found alternatives through growing similar colonies on
Germ Science: Why Hand washing Matters – Let’s hear it for hygiene, science and
history! You can tie this into the way Smallpox was transmitted to the Native
Americans when the Europeans first arrived, as well as how diseases like flu
and polio were able to spread so easily.
Five Senses Mask – You can tie in how doctors and nurses used their senses to
help diagnose people before things like x-ray and sonograms were available.
Midwifes in particular used the sense of touch to find how the baby was
situated in the mom?s belly, and some still do today. Doctors used to rely on
the sense of sound to diagnose disease, and sight to identify skin or bone
problems. Smell was also used to determine certain types of infection.
Planting a Garden – If you already do gardening, you can add some history to it, by
finding out which plants were used as medicine. Peppermint was used for stomach
ailments, for example, and still is sometimes. Rose hips were used to treat
disease, because of Vitamin C content. Almost every edible plant or herb was
once used as a type of medicine.
Virtual Field Trip
Museum of Medical Quackery – This online museum has pictures of discredited
medical devices that were once in popular use in the US. If you live near St. Paul Minnesota,
or find yourself making a family trip out there, you can see them in person on
display at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
Another great installment of the ABC’s of American History series. Have you missed a few? Check out the entire series below: