Perri Klass is a professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University, codirector of NYU Florence, and national medical director of Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit that incorporates reading into pediatric care. She writes the weekly column The Checkup for the New York Times.
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. The steady beating back of infant and child mortality is one of our greatest human achievements. In A Good Time to Be Born: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future (W. W. Norton & Company) 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. For the first time in human memory, early death is now the exception rather than the rule. David Oshinsky, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Polio: A History, praised Klass as she “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[ …] A Good Time to Be Born is the perfect prescription for the uncertainties of our time.”