Less than a century ago, children in the United States faced real threats from malaria, hookworm, polio, rickets, smallpox, and a host of other health issues that have been largely overcome. Studying these conditions can bring 21st century students a greater appreciation of the health practices we try to convince them to follow, as well as making a good social studies lesson.
We’ve got a couple of historic diseases to start you off, one most commonly seen in the urban North and one most seen in the rural South. If your students find these interesting, encourage them to research and report on other historic diseases.
Once upon a time, a lot of American children lived in dark tenements with no chance to play outdoors, and many worked all day in factories, mills, or in those same tenements, where they sewed garments for pennies. One result was Vitamin D deficiency, leading to a crippling bone disease called rickets. Sunshine allows the body to make its own Vitamin D, but city children often lived in darkness.
Reform movements made sunshine and fresh air more available for America’s city children, and milk and cereals began to be fortified with Vitamin D, and rickets became a memory — in fact, most of us forgot about it entirely. Now, many kids drink sodas for breakfast instead of milk and spend their time indoors playing video games. Schools have in some cases shortened or eliminated recess, parents are more cautious about letting children play freely outdoors, and many people avoid dairy products or the sun out of health concerns.
As a result, we’re now seeing Vitamin D deficiency again in the United States. Where rickets used to be a disease caused by poverty and neglect, we could now see a resurgence of rickets caused by affluence and caution.
- A Lens into the Past, a lesson on using photos to learn more about history, works with visual literacy and media literacy as well as health and history. Understanding Tenement Life gives a glimpse into the hardships faced by people living in the tenement buildings that were a common feature of city life a century ago. Go through the lessons, and ask students to notice circumstances that could lead to a lack of sunshine and fresh food for the children.
- An online search for information about rickets will quickly turn up disturbing photos. Review sources before you have students do online research. FamilyDoctor.org has a simple explanation of the disease with a mild diagram.
- Have students look at nutrition labels in their kitchens at home and identify good sources of vitamin D. Kids need 600 IU of Vitamin D each day. Nutrition labels express vitamin content in terms of percentage of the RDA (recommended daily allowance) of the vitamins. Have students create a drawing or collage of food pictures from magazines showing one day’s worth of Vitamin D from food sources.
While country children were less likely to face rickets, since they were often outdoors even if they had to work, they were more likely than city kids to contract hookworm disease. Hookworm is a parasite that lives in the bodies of animals (including human beings) in hot climates. In rural areas where people didn’t have plumbing and often didn’t have or didn’t wear shoes, hookworm could be devastating.
- Hookworm is all about sanitation; it is usually contracted from walking barefoot in a place where an affected person has defecated, so indoor plumbing and shoes have taken care of the problem. Study the history of indoor plumbing with History of Toilets or with The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, an absolutely fascinating book on the subject. Add the important dates to your classroom timeline.
- Read about hookworm and hookworm eradication in Arkansas, where up to 20% of the population suffered from the parasite a century ago. I wrote the encyclopedia article on that subject, and in my research I was very impressed by the way the Rockefeller Foundation approached the problem. How people got hookworm disease was well known, so the people working on it as a public health problem combined new technology (motion pictures), motivation (they threw little festivals across the affected regions of the country, where they gave people free food and entertainment to lure them into accepting treatment), and intensive education to stamp out a terrible health problem in a very short time. Challenge students to plan a campaign to combat a current public health problem.
- Watch the Rockefeller Foundation’s movie, below. This film is from 1920, when rural people had few opportunities to see movies.