The Fatal Five: Curatorial Thinking in Action

Defining Moments Canada is proud to feature this student project, lead by HWDSB educator Rob Bell and originally published by the Dundas Museum and Archives. This project is an excellent example of what can be achieved by students when curatorial thinking skills are practiced and used for historical exploration.

This year I intended to use the study of public health issues to help teach my students about the history of their community, as well as the larger narratives found within the history of our country and the broader story of the impact of science and medical breakthrough on human life.

This study began with a tour of our community’s oldest cemetery with a passionate local historian, Mr. Stan Nowak, who taught the students about some of the key figures and events in our community’s past.  On the tour, Mr. Nowak had students note the number of children’s gravestones, taking the class through ‘Cholera Alley’, a section of the cemetery where victims of a cholera outbreak were buried.  This trip to the cemetery literally ‘brought home’ the topics of disease and public health for the students and parents that afternoon.

A page from the Town of Dundas death records from the year 1878. Causes of death for children on this page include diarrhea, whooping cough, and phthisis or tuberculosis.

As a way of understanding the impact of disease in our community, we approached Anna Patterson, the Educational Coordinator at the Dundas Museum & Archive about our project, and she shared with the class copies of the local death records for the years 1869-1878.  Through these documents, students glimpsed the sparse, yet starkly intimate details of a person’s life as recorded in municipal death records.  It is a sobering experience for a ten- or eleven-year-old student to record the specifics of a two-year-old child who died in July 1871 of “Consumption” after being ill with the disease for one year.  In these records, one member of our class observed, the lives of children were often so brief they were recorded in hours and days.

While recording the causes of death, students frequently noted they had never heard of most of the diseases that took the lives of children in this period.  This observation led to a number of discussions about improvements in sanitation, access to clean drinking water, and, perhaps most presciently, vaccinations.  We talked about and reflected on the fact that diseases that took the lives of children who used to sit in our classroom no longer threaten us. As they collected their data, students came to see the disproportionate representation of children in our local death records from this time.  On most pages of these records, children represented between half and three-quarters of the dead.  What the archival evidence showed the class in frank and uncompromising terms was that in late nineteenth-century Dundas the most dangerous thing to be was a child.

We decided to focus on five of the most fatal diseases for children in our community at this time: diarrhea, consumption, bronchitis, scarlet fever, and whooping cough.  After compiling this list – what we named the ‘Fatal Five’ – students grouped and graphed the data by the organ system(s) most affected by each disease.  What they found was that the respiratory system was by far the most vulnerable one for children in the 1800s, markedly more than it was for adults. This information directly influenced our Science program and in particular, the Grade 5 Human Organ Systems unit. 

As part of this unit, students work with a biomedical scientist – Dr. Deborah Sloboda – from McMaster University in the dissection of different organs, including the brain, heart, and lungs.  In preparation for the lung dissection, we located several academic articles on the topic of childhood respiratory disease, and, after reading the summary section of the articles, the students found logical reasons for children’s vulnerability to respiratory diseases, and they discussed their findings with Dr. Sloboda prior to the dissection where the students saw from themselves the sections of the lung affected by the diseases they had studied.

One question that kept occurring during our primary research was that, given what we knew from our cemetery tour about the prevalence of cholera in our community during the 1800s, could doctors have mistakenly diagnosed diarrhea when patients had actually died of cholera.  To find out more about this, we reached out to a McMaster professor of biochemistry – Dr. Michael Surette – with this question, and we learned the key symptoms (i.e. the stool) of these diseases are very different from one another, making misdiagnoses unlikely.  However, Ms. Patterson noted that the contemporary fears around cholera may have led doctors to omit the actual cause of death in order to quell public anxiety.  Throughout the project, when a question arose, we did our best to find and approach people with expertise in the relevant field.  Consequently, even questions stemming from the project’s main focus led us into branches of information and ideas that stretched both the reach and depth of this project.

One of the big questions we have been chasing through a number of classroom projects is ‘When did science begin to win in the fight against disease?’  Ms. Patterson provided the students with a glimpse of the confusion that surrounded most medical attempts to address the Fatal Five diseases in our community in the nineteenth century.  Ms. Patterson showed the students a wide range of items – some effectual, most ineffectual, some harmful – prescribed for the ailments and symptoms associated with the Fatal Five.  The subsequent conversations with students led to an exploration of certain milestones in medical science and public health, such as the discovery of insulin and antibiotics, as well as modern concerns about the dangers of antibiotic resistance and the rise of ‘superbugs’.

The Fatal Five project came to straddle a range of curriculum areas, and we found that our historical project was also deeply intertwined with science.  In order to deepen our understanding of the scientific context of the five diseases we studied, we reached out to McMaster Children and Youth University (MCYU) which provided workshops with the students centering around the themes of contagion and antibiotic resistance.  Through these workshops, students came to appreciate and comprehend some of the mechanisms of infection and the efficacy of antibiotics, as well as the dangers of their overuse.  I have been struck throughout this project by the way the intertwining narratives of History and Science have mutually informed and enriched for my students the story of the Fatal Five.

To view the students’ curation and read more about the project, please visit the Dundas Museum and Archive website.