A GOOD TIME TO BE BORN
How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future
By Perri Klass
“A Good Time to Be Born” is an ambitious, elegant meditation on what the doctor-writer Perri Klass describes as one of our greatest human achievements: a reduction in child mortality. She begins by reminding us that “we are the luckiest parents in history”; for the first time in human memory, early death of children is now the exception, not the norm. Klass goes on to explore the toll taken in previous eras by measles, tuberculosis, diarrhea and other, now preventable, illnesses — and also the art that grew from such pain. She describes how scientific advances that led to the reduction of child mortality have shaped culture, transforming parenting, medicine and the way we live now.
The book is divided into three sections: “The Desolation of That Empty Cradle,” “The Birth of a Great and New Idea” and “What Marvelous Days” (from a 1902 speech by Mary Putnam Jacobi, a champion of women’s health, describing the birth of her first child). Chapters are punctuated with nursery rhymes, paintings, newspaper clippings, letters and photographs — all shining a light on advances in clinical medicine and science alongside the meaning of childhood. Klass also examines “Peter Pan,” “Jane Eyre,” “Little Women” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” through this lens.
The politics of health care are another undercurrent throughout “A Good Time to Be Born.” Klass describes inequality and racism with a quiet, powerful rage that underscores the shameful political truths that continue during our contemporary plague: “As we have watched the Covid-19 pandemic sweep the world, we have learned again the hard lesson that this new virus, like old infections, does more damage among the poor, among minorities, among immigrants and refugees, among people who are kept on the margins.” She reminds us that “racism continues to blight the health and growth of children in many different ways,” and then highlights continued disparities in medicine.
In the acknowledgments of this book is an almost apologetic disclaimer that Klass does not consider herself a historian or expert in any sense — yet she clearly is an expert in narrative and in medicine. In “A Good Time to Be Born,” she takes the most complex human patterns of all — history, medicine, politics, art — and knits them into something unique and beautiful.
I did find myself wanting more of Klass’s own story, both the sorrow and hope of a doctor’s work. But this is not a memoir, so she cedes her time to other trailblazing doctors like Rebecca Crumpler, Mary Putnam Jacobi and Josephine Baker. Klass also shows respect to the nurses, public health advocates and scientists who revolutionized medicine with vaccines, sanitation and antibiotics. This is an important book for many reasons, but that Klass has given voice to the voiceless is perhaps the most significant.
Good doctors — and good writers — understand the importance of what is not said. I fear the fallout of Covid-19 may change the landscape of child mortality, placing stress on the economy, international security and the state of mental health. We seem poised to fall backward — and, to this end, Klass’s conclusion, “The Promise of Safety,” feels like a warning. From start to finish, her book reminds us what it means to survive, and just how precious and precarious a state that is. With the long-term effects of the pandemic and current threats to democracy and climate change, whether or not it really is a good time to be born remains to be seen.
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