Posts Tagged science

STEM Tuesday – Diseases and Pandemics — Author Interview

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’ve the pleasure of revisiting Gail Jarrow, author of the highly acclaimed Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary. Although this is a historical medical thriller its exploration of the opportunities and ethics of public health resonate in today’s COVID-19 reality.

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano: Thank you for joining STEM Tuesday again. I hope you are doing well during this pandemic. Fatal Fever takes readers to a time when typhoid fever outbreaks were not uncommon in the U.S. and elsewhere. What would you say the book is primarily about?

Picture of the cover of fatal fever. Gail Jarrow:  The book is part of my Deadly Diseases trilogy, which focuses on early-20th-century medicine.  I consider that period a turning point. After the acceptance  of  germ theory, scientists and physicians were looking for ways to prevent, treat, and cure diseases. I wrote Fatal Fever to explain how typhoid fever was tackled, and I chose Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary,  as a way to tell the story.

CCD: The opening scene, in which Mary Mallon seeks to escape from health officials and the police, is full of suspense. It’s a gripping beginning and it flows smoothly to the rest of the book’s structure. It makes me wonder how the book’s narrative arc took shape in your mind. Can you fill us on in some of that process?

GJ:  I think it helps readers to understand unfamiliar information, such as a disease, when I approach the subject through personal stories.  Because Mary Mallon was an asymptomatic typhoid carrier,  I couldn’t show the disease’s horrible toll by only telling  her story.  I found another way.  I discovered that George Soper (the sanitary engineer  who tracked her down) had helped to clean up a typhoid epidemic in my hometown of Ithaca, New York, in 1903.  Early in my  book, I use details about that episode to introduce readers to the biology of the disease, the ways it devastated the bodies of individual Ithacans, and the fact that there was no cure or treatment.  When Soper starts his search for Mary Mallon in New York City just three years later, the reader understands why he believes it is critically important to find her before she can sicken and kill others.

CCD: This book brings in various disciplines and topics –history, human rights and civics, and public health and the biology of disease all come into play. Yet it’s a tight story. Did you ever struggle with drafts that were too complex or too rambling a book for your readers?

GJ: My biggest hurdle is the jump from researching to writing. I’ve read thousands of pages of historical background, past and present scientific literature, and primary documents. From all that, I have to figure out the most engaging, accessible, and accurate way to present this knowledge in abbreviated form. One thing that often helps is to remember my days teaching middle-school science. If I were conveying this information to my students, how would I do it?  As I write, I keep an eye on vocabulary as well as sentence, paragraph, and chapter length. I read everything  aloud so that I hear how it sounds. I’m not afraid to slash my prose. When I hand my manuscript to my longtime editor, Carolyn Yoder, I always ask her to look for spots that drag or confuse.

CCD: How did you decide which scientific information to include and what to leave out?

GJ: I consider how much science background my typical readers probably have. Do they know enough that I can build on that foundation to explain new information?  I’m careful not to simplify so much that I make incorrect statements.  Sometimes, after reading many scientific papers and talking to experts, I realize that parts of the science aren’t settled. Depending on the topic, I might explain the debate. But if it’s too technical and in the weeds for my audience, I might not include that aspect. I ran into a different problem with my book about plague, Bubonic Panic. I came across a recent controversial hypothesis about the history of plague. Though intriguing, it was based on very weak evidence. If the evidence had been stronger, I might have mentioned the idea. But I decided it would be irresponsible to perpetuate what might turn out to be speculative balderdash.

CCD: I have experienced similar decisions in my own writing. Deciding which new ideas to include can be a tough call! Moving on…Obviously, as a book that features a dangerous infectious disease, there are parallels to our current COVID-19 pandemic. Which Fatal Fever themes and issues resonate most strongly for you as the world faces and attempts to cope with COVID-19?

GJ:  In my Author’s Note to Fatal Fever, which I wrote several years ago, I raised the issues that arise when a deadly, highly contagious, and untreatable disease strikes.  I was thinking about typhoid fever in 1900 and the plight of Mary Mallon when quarantines and contact tracing were part of the story. But what I wrote then applies to any epidemic:  What do we expect health authorities to do? What government actions would or should we tolerate? Does protecting a city/state/country override the rights and freedoms of an individual?  You can’t get any more relevant to COVID than that!

public health poster/cartoon

 The numerous historical images and documents in FATAL FEVER, such as this cartoon (Page 115), help to bring readers back to the early 20th century and better understand the tale and its context.

CCD: In Fatal Fever, you point out that science understanding that asymptomatic individuals can spread typhoid fever was new at the time when Mary Mallon was identified as a carrier. Today, we are facing a new disease, and information about its transmission has developed and evolved over the months. I wonder if you see anything in the story of Mary Mallon and her intersection with disease, transmission, and public health that might be of use in our individual and collective responses to COVID-19?

GJ: I personally learned several lessons from Mary’s case and typhoid outbreaks. People whose job it was to worry about public health (officials, medical personnel) had one agenda. People who had to make a living to support themselves and their families (Mary, other typhoid carriers) had a different agenda. The goals and needs of these groups ended up in conflict.  Compromises had to be found.  They have to be found today, too.

World Health Organization slide about how COVID-19 is spread.

An early 21st-century public health slide about how COVID-19 spreads. Note that as of this posting, WHO and the US Centers for disease control acknowledge that asymptomatic individuals can also spread the coronavirus. (Source: World Health Organization)

 

Another lesson is a hopeful one. The diseases I’ve studied from 100 years ago have been controlled and, in some cases, conquered.  We have witnessed amazing discoveries in COVID treatments and vaccines in nine or ten months. It took years, even decades, to make that progress with earlier diseases. Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents suffered through much worse times—disease-wise—than today, and they coped and survived. History gives us perspective.

CCD: I appreciate that hopeful, historical angle! As you explain in a short video on your website, you write about history. Yet science themes come into your books. What thoughts do you have about how these historical stories might impact readers’ relationship to science?

GJ: First, as I mentioned above, I think personal stories make scientific topics more relatable.

Second, the history of science shows that understanding and “theories” change as we gain more information. In the past, scientists and physicians  fervently believed in ideas that we now know were absolutely wrong, and the scientific/medical establishment criticized and ridiculed anyone who challenged those ideas. Two examples of 19th-century mavericks who are relevant today as we deal with antiseptics and handwashing: Lister and Semmelweis. Scientific views change. Careful observation and proof from unbiased tests are essential.

CCD: Stepping away from history—what’s new for you as an author, and what we can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

The cover of Gail Jarrow's most recent book, BLOOD AND GERMS.

Gail Jarrow continues to write about the intersection of history and medicine. BLOOD AND GERMS is her most recent book.

GJ: In keeping with my interest in history and the evolution of medicine, this fall I launched my Medical Fiascoes series with Boyds Mills & Kane. The first book, BLOOD AND GERMS: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease,  came out last month. The second book, AMBUSHED!: The Assassination Plot Against President Garfield, will be published next fall, and it explores the way medical ignorance led to his death. I’m currently in the midst of research for the third book in the series.

CCD: This is exciting! I’m sure we all look forward to exploring more medical history with you as our thoughtful, informative guide, Gail. I want to thank you for your wonderful writing and for this interview. Stay well.

 

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Win a FREE copy of FATAL FEVER: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary!

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

Photo of Carolyn DeCristofanoYour host is Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano, founding STEM Tuesday contributor, STEM Education Consultant, and author of STEM books for kids. Her books include A Black Hole is NOT a Hole, Running on Sunshine: How Does Solar Energy Work?, and National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas.

 

 

 

Gail Jarrow is the author of nonfiction books and novels for ages 8-18. Her nonfiction books have earned numerous awards. Photograph of author Gail Jarrow

 

 

STEM Tuesday – Diseases and Pandemics — Writing Tips & Resources

Reading Science History Through Photographs

From YouTube videos to memes, from graphs to diagrams, a lot of the information we take in every day comes from pictures. The process of reading images is called visual literacy. Academics define visual literacy as “set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media.” (Lundy and Stephens, 2014). Reading images is a critical skill not just for life, but also for researching and writing captivating nonfiction.

Every book I’ve written has required analyzing and interpreting photos or videos. That’s where I glean juicy details, especially about characters and settings. Writing a scene is certainly easier if I can picture it in my mind.

Today, I want to focus on reading just one type of primary source — the photograph. Many of the books on this month’s book list are illustrated using archival photographs. For example, Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARY: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America has an entire photo album in the back matter.

Likewise, THE 1918 FLU PANDEMIC: Core Events of a Worldwide Outbreak by John Mickols, Jr. features many historic images from the 1918 flu pandemic, including those sourced from the Library of Congress (LOC) or the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). 

And here’s the good news: many of those LOC and NARA images can be found online. If you go to LOC.gov and search for 1918 and influenza, you’ll find dozens of historic images you can review with your students. Or click here to access my search.  At the NARA, find 1918 influenza images here.

Activity – Reading Historic Photographs

This activity will help your students learn to read historic photographs, glean useful details, and interpret them.

First, select a historic photo, perhaps from one of the collections mentioned above.

Next, review the Library of Congress’s Teachers Guide for analyzing historic photographs. You’ll find that here.  The LOC encourages students to work through a three-step process. Those steps are:

  • Observing – noting details from the photo
  • Reflecting – generating and testing hypotheses about the image
  • Questioning – asking questions that lead to more observations and reflections.

Download the blank student Primary Source Analysis Tool here.

Students could work on this activity individually, in small groups, or as a whole class.

Once you’ve analyzed your photo, consider how you could use the information you discovered in a piece of nonfiction writing.

O.O.L.F

STEM Tuesday – Diseases and Pandemics — In the Classroom

Throughout history, infectious diseases have impacted humans around the world. Whenever a strange new disease emerges, scientists called epidemiologists study it to learn how it spreads, its effects on humans, and how to stop it.

The books we’re highlighting this month focus on some of the most infamous and deadly infectious diseases in history and the scientific work to study and contain them. They are a great starting point for different sciences activities and discussions in the classroom. Here are a few to try:

Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History by Bryn Barnard

Here’s an extensive evaluation of the causes and human reactions and interactions (from the 1300s to the present) to bubonic plague, smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, and the 1918 influenza pandemic. This book examines how these diseases changed societies and what it will ultimately take to eliminate cholera worldwide. It also looks at how wealth, bias, and prejudice continue to affect governmental reactions to microbial evolution.

Classroom activity: Divide the class into small groups and assign each an infectious disease to study. Have them answer the following questions: What type of disease is this – virus or bacteria? How does it enter the human body? How does it spread? What effect did this disease have on people around the world? Have scientists been able to stop the spread of this disease? If so, how? If not, why not? Have each group present what they have learned to the class.

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy

This book dramatically examines another “invisible stalker.” Using both first-hand witness and medical accounts, newspaper clippings, and contemporary images, it follows yellow fever’s arrival and spread throughout Philadelphia. Detailing the social, political, and medical conditions and struggles to combat this disease, this book examines the changes that the plague brought to modern medicine and the fear that it could reappear.

Classroom activity: Compare the historical yellow fever epidemic to the current Covid-19 pandemic. How would you document today’s pandemic for future generations? Have students create their own modern-day pandemic documentation – using first-hand witness accounts, newspaper articles, photographs, and other primary sources. What do they hope future generations will learn from their work?

Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary, by Gail Jarrow

When typhoid fever breaks out in New York, medical detective George Soper traces the outbreak to Mary Mallon. His job: to prevent her from infecting others. But Mary refuses to comply with quarantine and other medical directives. After all, she isn’t sick. So she continues cooking and passing on the disease. Personal freedom versus public health questions are once again relevant as we deliberate quarantines, lockdowns, and contact tracing.

Classroom activity: When an infectious disease is spreading through a community, should public health take priority over personal rights and freedoms? What are the pros and cons of each point of view? Divide students into two groups – one that prioritizes public health and one that prioritizes individual rights. Have each group prepare arguments that support their assigned point of view and debate the issue.

Fever Year- The Killer Flu of 1918: A Tragedy in Three Acts by Don Brown

Presented in a graphic novel format, this book tracks the course of the 1918 flu from Camp Funston, Kansas around the world. Many images look eerily familiar – empty streets and masks. A very accessible examination of the politics and science involved in battling the spread and ultimate containment of this flu. Additionally, it comments on current scientist’s desire to discover why this flu was so deadly by recreating it.

Classroom activity: The lessons we can learn from history are invaluable. After reading about the 1918 flu pandemic, ask students what they have learned about the spread of the flu virus and the effectiveness of different prevention methods taken in 1918. How have people applied these lessons learned from history to today’s Covid-19 pandemic? In what ways could we do better? What have you learned that you can use to help stop the spread of infectious disease?

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Carla Mooney loves to explore the world around us and discover the details about how it works. An award-winning author of numerous nonfiction science books for kids and teens, she hopes to spark a healthy curiosity and love of science in today’s young people. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, three kids, and her dog. When not writing, she can often be spotted at a hockey rink for one of her kids’ games. Find her at http://www.carlamooney.com, on Facebook @carlamooneyauthor, or on Twitter @carlawrites.