A Good Time to Be Born

Perri Klass. Norton, $28.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-393-60999-8
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.)
Reviewed on : 08/27/2020
Release date: 10/13/2020
Genre: Nonfiction
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