The Best Medicine: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future (Paperback)
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.
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.
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
Describes how the world—and with it, parenting—has been transformed by declining infant and child mortality over the past century.
— Kate Julian - Atlantic
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
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
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.
— Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
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...the perfect prescription for the uncertainties of our time.
— David Oshinsky, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Polio: A History
A powerful story of the right of children to live and thrive from birth.
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