Skip to Content

Found 373 Resources

"Campaign '92: AIDS..." button

National Museum of American History
Square white button with navy blue outline of the United States with "AIDS" written across it. Says "Campaign 92: VOTE AS IF YOUR LIFE DEPENDED ON IT!" in red writing.

From ACT UP Indiana. During the presidential campaign of 1992 (between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush), members of ACT UP protested, crashed political dinners, and performed demonstrations across the United States. Their main goal was to urge the candidates to talk about the AIDS epidemic and take action to help those with the illness.

"Fuck the red ribbons - Find a cure" button

National Museum of American History
Round yellow button with black border. Says "FUCK THE RED RIBBONS FIND A CURE" in black and red writing.

From the first LGBT pride march in Austin, Texas, in June 1995. This button refers to the AIDS epidemic that began in the US in the 1980s and its lack of a cure. Red ribbons became a symbol of solidarity for those living with AIDS in 1991.

12 kids who helped a doubting public accept the smallpox vaccine

National Museum of American History

Each year in August, National Immunization Awareness Month provides an opportunity to highlight the value of immunization across the lifespan. Activities focus on encouraging all people to protect their health by being vaccinated against infectious diseases. — Centers for Disease Control

Thirty-five years have passed since the 33rd World Health Assembly declared the world free of smallpox, an infectious disease that had plagued humankind for most of written history. This momentous achievement was the result of a massive global eradication campaign begun in the late 1960s, but its real beginnings can be traced back much further—to a medical discovery made in the English countryside, which spread across the Atlantic and to the small towns of the new republic. The following is a small piece of evidence of this long and rich history.

"He is slaid. Milton 25th October 1809. The twelve children whose names are written on the back of this card were vaccinated by Doctor Amos Holbrook..."

This unassuming 3 x 5 inch card in the collections at the National Museum of American History attests to a remarkable event that took place over two hundred years ago in a small town outside Boston. On October 25, 1809, in Milton, Massachusetts, twelve children were released from quarantine after fifteen days of close observation for any sign of smallpox infection. This may not sound unusual for a time when smallpox epidemics were a part of life, but these children had been purposefully inoculated with virulent smallpox matter in order to make a public test of a new medical discovery—vaccination.

The discovery had been made over a decade earlier by Edward Jenner, a country doctor in Gloucester, England. In 1798 he published a pamphlet entitled An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae vaccinae, a disease discovered in some of the western counties of England, particularly Gloucestershire and Known by the Name of Cow Pox. The booklet described his successful experiments using inoculation with cowpox to provide protection from the more serious disease smallpox. Jenner's method was named "vaccination," referring to the medical term for cowpox, Variolae vaccinae, and the Latin vacca, meaning "cow." Vaccination provided a potentially much safer alternative to the older practice of variolation, in which immunity was conferred by deliberately infecting a person with a small dose of smallpox.

As word of the vaccine's effectiveness spread, Jenner supplied cowpox vaccine matter to doctors throughout England. In 1800 vaccine material reached the United States through Benjamin Waterhouse, a professor at Harvard Medical School. Acceptance of vaccination did not come easily, and many members of the medical profession and the church opposed a method that introduced an animal disease into humans. In 1802 Waterhouse felt obliged to extol the virtues of the cow in an attempt to persuade the Boston Board of Health to set aside its objections to the "contemptible origin" of the vaccine. "The earth maintains not a more clean, placid, healthy, and useful animal than the Cow," he appealed. "She is peculiarly the poor man's riches and support. From her is drawn, night and morning, the food for his ruddy children; […] every part of her has its particular uses in commerce and medicine. On these accounts she is an [sic] useful, though invisible wheel in the great machine of state."

Satirical cartoon

Whatever their attitudes toward cows may have been, in 1809 the citizens of the town of Milton, Massachusetts, became part of the first municipal effort in the United States to offer free vaccination to all inhabitants. Over three hundred persons were inoculated during a three-day campaign in July. Following this program, the town leaders took an unusual step—they decided to hold a public demonstration to prove without a doubt that cowpox vaccine offered protection from smallpox. On October 9, 1809, twelve children, selected from those vaccinated in July, were inoculated with fresh, virulent smallpox matter by Dr. Amos Holbrook and witnessed by eighteen town members. The children were confined to a single home for fifteen days and on October 25 were discharged with no sign of smallpox infection.

Each child received a personalized certificate pronouncing them a living testament to the "never failing power of the mild preventative the Cow Pox," "a blessing great as it is singular in its kind." Several other small certificates were produced to commemorate this remarkable demonstration, including the one now in the museum's collection. The names of the twelve children subjected to the vaccine test are inscribed on the back of the card:

"Joshua Briggs, Samuel Alden, Thomas Street Briggs, Benjamin Church Briggs, Martin Briggs, George Briggs, Charles Briggs, John Smith, Catharine Bent, Suzanna Bent, Ruth Porter Horton, Mary Ann Belcher"

Milton's councilmen published a detailed account of the vaccination experiment and sent a copy to the officers of every town in the state, as well as to Governor Christopher Gore, a proponent of vaccination. In 1810 the State of Massachusetts passed the Cow Pox Act directing every town, district, or plantation, within the Commonwealth, to provide for the vaccination of their inhabitants.


The world is now free of small pox—a remarkable global achievement that owes a small debt to the citizens in a little town in New England in the early years of our republic.

Diane Wendt is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History. She has previously blogged about what it was like to survive rabies 100 years ago.

Posted Date: 
Friday, August 28, 2015 - 08:00
OSayCanYouSee?d=qj6IDK7rITs OSayCanYouSee?d=7Q72WNTAKBA OSayCanYouSee?i=3Auuw29QVeI:aRYhli1vY3g:V_sGLiPBpWU OSayCanYouSee?i=3Auuw29QVeI:aRYhli1vY3g:gIN9vFwOqvQ OSayCanYouSee?d=yIl2AUoC8zA

1830 Violet Alexander's "Flowering Tree" Appliqued Quilt

National Museum of American History
A quilted inscription at the base of the flowering tree on this quilt reads “Violet E. L. Alexander / June 10 / 1830.” The central focus of this quilt, a flowering “Tree of Life” motif, is appliquéd on a 40-inch square of white cotton. Other motifs of palm trees, flowers, and long-tailed birds are appliquéd on white cotton triangles to fill out the center section. This is framed by 3-inch and 7-inch borders that are made of roller-printed floral and geometric stripes. The two borders are separated by a 3¾-inch plain white border. The corner motifs and some parts of the central tree are cut from block-printed cotton produced at the Bannister Hall print works near Preston, England.

The quilting pattern, 8 stitches per inch, consists of diagonal lines, ¼-inch apart, over the entire center and on the printed borders. Clamshell quilting is found on the plain white border. The fine quilting and use of costly chintz fabrics printed in England make it a typical example of a medallion quilt, popular in the early nineteenth century, and often found in the American South.

Violet Elizabeth was the daughter of William Bain Alexander and Violet Davidson. Violet was born January 9, 1812. She was one of fourteen children (seven girls and seven boys) who grew up on a prosperous estate in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. On December, 27, 1831 she married Dr. Isaac Wilson, who both farmed and maintained an extensive medical practice. The couple had six children, five sons and one daughter. Two sons lost their lives in the Civil War, two others farmed in the county, and another practiced medicine. Violet died at age 33 of erysipelas, a bacterial infection, during an epidemic in 1845. This quilt was made just prior to her marriage. According to information from the donor, Dr. John E. S. Davidson, the quilt may have been made by his mother, Jane Henderson (Mrs. Edward Constantine Davidson), a friend or relative of Violet.

Note: The name Violet appears and reappears in the family. She may have gone by the name “Elizabeth,” as some sources cite.

21st Century Cures Act Tackles Postpartum Depression

Smithsonian Magazine

This afternoon the 21st Century Cures Act was signed into law by President Obama. This $6.3 billion dollar package funds a broad range of issues, including the Cancer Moonshot, the opioid epidemic, FDA drug approval as well as mental health treatments. Among these many provisions, however, the bill also addresses a topic that has received little attention over the years: postpartum depression.

This mental health condition is part of a wider problem of maternal depression that occurs both before and after childbirth. Postpartum depression inflicts up to one in seven mothers after their child's birth. But only around half of those women ever get diagnosed. Proposed by representative Katherine M. Clark, the Bringing Postpartum Depression Out of the Shadows Act provides $5 million per year from 2018 to 2022 for states to develop screening and treatment programs for mothers. 

"Women are falling through the cracks and not getting treatment, even when they're crying out for help," Joy Burkhard, founder of the National Coalition for Maternal Mental Health, tells Annamarya Scaccia at Broadly. "It's the fault of our medical system for not catching the problem."

It's not easy to diagnose and can easily be confused with the so-called "baby blues"—a week or so of mild depression, worry and fatigue in the first year after they give birth, which inflicts roughly 80 percent of mothers. But without treatment, postpartum depression can last for months or years, impacting the mother and child's quality of life.

Women with postpartum depression often have difficulty following a breastfeeding schedule. They sometimes don't form an emotional attachment to their child. They could even consider hurting themselves or their baby. 

“As a mom of three boys, I know how rewarding, as well as how overwhelming and exhausting, a new baby can be,” Clark tells Caroline Bologna at The Huffington Post. “Moms comprise fewer than a fifth of Congress, so it’s especially important for us to bring these perspectives into policymaking. I introduced this bill because our moms need to know they matter ― that we, as a nation, value them and will fight for the health and success of their families.”

The grants will go towards programs similar to the Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Project (MCPAP) for Moms, a Massachusetts state-funded program launched in 2014 to provide training and tool kits for recognizing PPD. The program also established three call centers across the state available for doctors with queries about psychiatric support services.

“The first thing we do is we go to a practice and we provide training. We teach them about the screening tools, we teach them about how to manage depression,” Dr. Nancy Byatt, a psychiatrist at UMass Medical School who started the program tells Emily Riemer at WCVB5.

The bill also fights against the stigma of mental illness, which forces countless people into isolation. But the hope is that with more improved screening and treatment programs, fewer mother will be left to battle this illness on their own.

Editor's Note, Dec 15, 2016: This article has been corrected to show that postpartum depression only inflicts mothers after their child's birth. Depression during pregnancy is also common and the newly implemented screening is aimed at detecting and treating both postpartum depression and related conditions.

30,000 People In Quarantine After Bubonic Plague Kills One in China

Smithsonian Magazine

Parts of the Chinese city of Yumen have been sealed off, and more than 30,000 people have been confined to their neighborhoods or placed in quarantine. The reason for the strict measures? A 38-year old man from that city died of bubonic plague last week. 

Arielle Duhaime-Ross reports at the Verge

City officials say that they have enough rice, flour, and oil to supply all 30,000 residents for up to a month, but reports haven’t yet mentioned how long this situation might last.

The victim contracted the plague after being in contact with a marmot, a large rodent that he’d reportedly chopped up to feed to his dog. Less than 24 hours later he developed a fever, and on July 16 he died in a hospital.

The plague also occurs in the United States, typically in western states. It’s rare, and the last urban plague outbreak in the United States happened in Los Angeles from 1924-1925. Since the 1990s most plague cases have occurred in Africa, typically in small communities or agricultural areas. A plague outbreak in Madagascar last year killed at least 39 people

It’s not surprising that the Chinese government is taking extraordinary precautions. In the 1300s the Black Death (likely the bubonic plague) spread from China across the world, killing huge numbers of people, including an estimated 60 percent of Europe’s population. Another epidemic in the 1800s, which also began in China, killed an estimated 10 million people worldwide. 

Such a huge outbreak is, in the modern day, extremely unlikely. For the most par, the plague is treatable with antibiotics, though some drug-resistant strains have been identified.

650 lire St. Giuseppe Benedetto Cottolengo Comforting the Sick single

National Postal Museum
On May 15, 1992, Vatican City issued two stamps commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of St. Giuseppe Benedetto Cottolengo. Professor Giovanni Hajnal designed the stamps.

The 650-lire value depicts St. Giuseppe Benedetto Cottolengo comforting the sick. At the right appear the words SIATE CERTI CHE IL BUON GESU NON DIMENTICA NULLA DI QUANTO FATE A LUI NELLA PERSONA DEI SUOI POVERI.

St. Giuseppe Benedetto Cottolengo was born in Bra in northwestern Italy in 1786 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1811. In January of 1828, he opened a small hospital near the Church of Corpus Christi in Turin. Here he took care of the sick refused admission to other hospitals. A cholera epidemic forced him to close the hospital, but he opened another in the Turin suburb of Valdocco in 1832. This marked the beginning of the Little House of Divine Providence, an institution that provided assistance to the sick and destitute of all social groups. To serve these people, he founded religious societies of nuns, brothers, priests, as well as several monasteries. St. Giuseppe Benedetto Cottolengo died in Chieri, near Turin, on April 30, 1842, and Pope Pius XI canonized him on March 19, 1934.

The stamps are vertical in format, measure 28 x 35.96 mm, and have a perforation of 11¼ x 11¾. They were produced on white chalky paper in multicolor rotogravure and were issued in sheets of twenty. Helio Courvoisier S.A. of Switzerland printed 450,000 complete series.

The value appears in the upper left corner of each stamp. Along the sides appear the words POSTE VATICANE, and at the bottom appears the inscription 1842 SAN G.B. COTTOLENGO 1992.

Crimando, Thomas I. "New Issues." Vatican Notes 41, no. 1 (July 1992): 4.

850 lire St. Giuseppe Benedetto Cottolengo Comforting the Sick single

National Postal Museum
On May 15, 1992, Vatican City issued two stamps commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of St. Giuseppe Benedetto Cottolengo. Professor Giovanni Hajnal designed the stamps. The 850-lire value depicts the saint under the protection of Our Lady supporting the Little House of Divine Providence.

St. Giuseppe Benedetto Cottolengo was born in Bra in northwestern Italy in 1786 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1811. In January of 1828, he opened a small hospital near the Church of Corpus Christi in Turin. Here he took care of the sick refused admission to other hospitals. A cholera epidemic forced him to close the hospital, but he opened another in the Turin suburb of Valdocco in 1832. This marked the beginning of the Little House of Divine Providence, an institution that provided assistance to the sick and destitute of all social groups. To serve these people, he founded religious societies of nuns, brothers, priests, as well as several monasteries. St. Giuseppe Benedetto Cottolengo died in Chieri, near Turin, on April 30, 1842, and Pope Pius XI canonized him on March 19, 1934.

The stamps are vertical in format, measure 28 x 35.96 mm, and have a perforation of 11¼ x 11¾. They were produced on white chalky paper in multicolor rotogravure and were issued in sheets of twenty. Helio Courvoisier S.A. of Switzerland printed 450,000 complete series.

The value appears in the upper left corner of each stamp. Along the sides appear the words POSTE VATICANE, and at the bottom appears the inscription 1842 SAN G.B. COTTOLENGO 1992.

Crimando, Thomas I. "New Issues." Vatican Notes 41, no. 1 (July 1992): 4.

Army and Navy Diary Including French-English Words

National Museum of African American History and Culture
World War I diary of Roy Underwood Plummer. The hardback book has a green cloth cover with black lettering that reads [ARMY AND NAVY / DIARY / FRENCH-ENGLISH WORDS / AUTOGRAPHS OF COMRADES]. The first page bears a handwritten inscription that reads [Roy Underwood Plummer / With Best Wishes / From / Your Sincere Friend / Albert L. Boddy / Xmas 1917.] At the front of the diary is an English-French Vocabulary section. This is followed by pages for Addresses of Home Friends and Autographs of Comrades. Plummer's first entry was made on December 15, 1917, and his final entry on June 5, 1919. The final entry reads [Honorably discharged. / Buy ticket for Washington, D.C., arriving / there early the / morning of the 6th.] The diary entries discuss several topics including Plummer’s insights on relations between US and French soldiers and citizens, segregation, the 1918 flu epidemic, weather conditions, food and places that he visited, African American companies and their bands that provided entertainment, German prisoners of war, the study of French language by African American soldiers, and the racial conflict between U.S. servicemen.

BLK Vol. 1 No. 4

National Museum of African American History and Culture
The fourth issue of BLK magazine, published March 1989. It is printed in black and white and the cover features an image of adult film performer Randy Cochran. Cochran sits facing the camera, smiling as he looks directly into it. He wears a light-colored suit with a stripped necktie. Tree branches can be seen in the background behind him. Close to the bottom of the page, the magazine’s logo [BLK] is printed in large, bold, uppercase white letters, surrounded by a solid black rectangle. Below the letters (within the box), the issue number and date appear [Number 4, March 1989]. There are 23 pages in total, with articles, advertisements, classifieds, black and white photographs, and cartoon illustrations originally from Ebony Magazine with new captions written by BLK.

The issue opens with a [Letters to the Editor] section, followed by a calendar of the month's events. The feature articles in this issue include an article on the National Black Gay and Lesbian Conference titled [Integrating Ourselves / Building bridges and coalitions to create wholeness], an interview with Randy Cochran titled [Randy Cochran / One of America’s prominent porn stars talks about his profession], and [Keeping the IRS Happy / Income tax reminders for lesbians and gay men].

There are 13 articles in the [Community News] section. They are: [500 Attend Los Angeles Leadership Conference; Watson, Waters, Cole Address Black Gay Group], [Gay, Lesbian jazz Org Forms in Los Angeles], [Minorities to Receive Increase in Services], [Whoopi Goldberg’s Dad Comes Out of Closet], [Odoms, Emery to Head GLCSC Committees], [Ugandans Flee AIDS Medical Researchers], [Ex-Junkie Works to Stem AIDS Epidemic], Women’s Group Slates Programs for March], [Parker, Clarke to Speak at Cal State, Bookstore], Kenya Ranks 16th with 4, 495 AIDS Cases], [List February Stats on AIDS Cases in U.S.], [BWMT Receives $131K AIDS Education Grant], [Kimberly Miller New MECLA Office Head] and [Magazine Finds Some Condoms Defective]. Following the news section is a gossip column by Preston G. Guider titled [Read My Lips]. The magazine concludes with the classifieds. The back cover is a full page advertisement for Midtowne Spa.

Open Letter to God

National Museum of African Art
Black and white (giclée) digital print presenting a conglomeration of snapshots primarily of children or children's world. In the upper left corner is an image of an out-stretched hand, lit in contrast to a menacing shadow beneath. In the center top, the artist photographs a toy jumbo jet and a doll carriage, left abandoned in the scene. To the right of these images stands a figure of a girl, pictured in a white dress only from the waist down, casting another long shadow on the ground. The center plane of the composition features a closeup look at the folds of a roughly hewn, machine-stitched blanket. The lower edge of the photograph depicts five images of a child's profile, becoming increasingly focused on the left ear. Two small images of a medical coat with AIDs ribbon complete the image.

A Ban on Salamanders Is Just Part of the Fight Against This Deadly Fungus

Smithsonian Magazine

Species of all types are disappearing around the globe, but no group may be more threatened than amphibians. One recent analysis found that 43 percent of amphibian species are on the decline and nearly a third are officially threatened. Scientists have also counted 168 species that have gone extinct in the wild, and more than half of those extinctions have occurred in the last few decades.

One big factor has been Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a fungal disease also known as chytrid that was virtually unknown two decades ago. Since its discovery, scientists have witnessed mass die-offs of amphibians, especially frogs, around the world, sometimes happening overnight.

Now, a related fungal disease is spreading among salamanders, B. salamandrivorans, or Bsal, and scientists are racing to apply what they have learned about chytrid to prevent this new threat from devastating amphibians in North America. 

Amphibians are an integral part of the ecosystem, providing a link between the aquatic and terrestrial worlds, Karen Lips, who studies the animals at the University of Maryland College Park, said this week at the 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C.

Amphibians are key predators of insects—many of which can transmit diseases such as Zika and dengue to humans—and they serve as meals for other creatures. When frogs disappear, “there are big impacts on pretty much all aspects of the ecosystem,” from water quality to snake abundance, says Lips, who has seen the effects of chytrid on amphibians in Panama.

The animals have also become key in research on limb regeneration. That makes amphibian declines, which may be even worse than reported, especially worrisome, Lips says. So researchers around the world are jumping in to find out as much as they can about the attacking fungi.

“The discovery of these two diseases has changed the way we think about pathogens,” says Ana Longo, of the University of Maryland College Park and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. When chytrid first appeared, scientists were reluctant to believe that a single pathogen could be so dangerous to more than a single species.

While studies have since shown that it's possible, scientists they have also discovered that there are several kinds of Batrachochytrium. Some appear to be endemic in certain regions, such as Brazil, Switzerland and Korea, and amphibians there are able to tolerate the fungus.

But two other versions have spread widely, largely due to the pet trade. These invasive fungi are mostly responsible for the mass die-offs of frogs and other amphibians in the wild. 

Scientists sample chytrid fungus on a dart frog in French Guiana. (Quentin Martinez/Biosphoto/Corbis)

Scientists have also recognized that the chytrid epidemic began decades earlier than they thought. By studying amphibians in natural history collections, they have been able to see that declines in some species, such as the Yosemite toad, occurred around the same time as the arrival of chytrid in a particular region.

“Museums are giving us a view of the past that may help us interpret the status of present-day populations,” says Vance Vredenburg, an amphibian ecologist at San Francisco State University.

One big takeaway so far is that the fungus may not actually doom all frogs, as scientists once feared. Many factors can interact to determine whether a population­—or an entire species—survives. For instance, while chytrid thrives in cooler climates, the local climate and ecology can influence the spread of the disease and amphibian susceptibility.

Interactions with the other microbes living on an animal’s skin may also play a role, along with the response of its immune system. Some researchers are now working on probiotics that might help a frog fight off a chytrid infection. And zoos, including the Smithsonian National Zoo, are raising animals that have gone extinct in the wild, such as the Panamanian golden frog, with plans to eventually reestablish lost populations once they figure out how to control the fungus. 

The Panamanian golden frog. (courtesy Brian Gratwicke)

Such efforts are giving scientists a head start for tackling Bsal, a disease that was first officially described in 2013. Thought to be native to Asia, this fungus arrived in the Netherlands via the pet trade and spread through Europe from there. The disease has not yet been found in North America, but it could be a huge problem if it makes the leap across the Atlantic.

“The threat of the new salamander-eating chytrid fungus is something we should all be very concerned about, because the Appalachian region is the world’s major biodiversity hot spot for salamanders,” says Brian Gratwicke, a conservation biologist at the National Zoo. “We have a responsibility do everything we can to preserve them as an important feature of the continent’s biodiversity.”

The U.S. Geological Survey has developed a rapid-response plan for handling suspicious salamander deaths, and herpetologists would love to see any dead salamanders people find. The National Zoo has also teamed up with a citizen-science project, the Amphibian Survival Alliance, to test pet salamanders for the fungus. In the meantime, researchers are hoping to apply the lessons they are learning about chytrid biology to Bsal.

But for now, the best way to keep U.S. salamanders safe is to keep Bsal out of the country. To that end, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a ban earlier this year on the import and interstate trade of 201 salamander species that could transmit Bsal.

“We know that there’s no treatment,” Lips said, “so it’s pretty obvious that the only thing that is going to give us any amount of time to come up with a solution or treatment … is to keep it out as long as possible.”

A Brief History of Awareness Ribbons

Smithsonian Magazine

The Emmy Awards are a well-dressed dream — highly-anticipated collections of runway confections and fashion faux pas. But this year, reports Entertainment Weekly’s Ariana Bacle, some stars made a more serious fashion statement: They wore green ribbons to telegraph their support for climate change action.

The ribbons were designed to bring attention to the #DemandClimateAction program, writes Bacle. They were distributed by supporters of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which counted Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Louis CK among its Emmy supporters in a blog post.

The Washington Post’s Rachel Feltman writes that the ribbons are tied to a NRDC petition that demands that world leaders fight climate change at an upcoming United Nations conference. Though green ribbons were used to draw attention to mental health last year, writes Feltman, this year they were intended to keep going green on the minds of TV viewers.

But how did a little folded ribbon become the badge for so many causes and organizations? It turns out that wearing ribbons for a cause has a controversial past. Awareness ribbons, as they are called, could have their roots in the tokens given to jousting (or warring) knights in the medieval ages (a tradition R. Coltman Clephan notes sometimes left lady loves in a state of near-undress). Some Americans think that awareness ribbons began with the “Civil War Era” use of yellow ribbons to welcome home veterans, but Gerald E. Parsons writes for the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center that the “tradition” actually began with a 1950s folk legend and a 1973 song.

On his radio show 99% Invisible, Roman Mars and producer Audrey Quinn tell how the wearers of red ribbons at the 1991 Tony Awards brought visibility to the AIDS epidemic despite early controversy about drawing attention to the still-taboo topic. Though nobody explained the ribbons during the show, writes Mars, “this degree of mystery provided some incredibly good press.”

Today, there are hundreds of varieties of awareness ribbons for every imaginable cause. But do they actually raise awareness or action? Probably not, writes Sarah E.H. Moore in her book Ribbon Culture: Charity, Compassion, and Public Awareness. Ribbons “[cash] in on the selling power of compassion,” she writes, “In so doing, they have transformed compassion itself into a commodity.”

A Brief History of Openly Gay Olympians

Smithsonian Magazine

Watching figure skater Adam Rippon compete, it’s easy to forget that he’s on skates. His dramatic, sharp movements – and facial expressions to match–emulate those of a professional dancer, at once complementing and contradicting his smooth, unfettered movement along the ice. He hides the technical difficulty of every jump and spin with head-flips and a commanding gaze, a performer as well as an athlete. But there’s one thing Rippon won’t be hiding – this year, he and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy will become the first openly gay American men to ever compete in the Winter Olympics.

“The atmosphere in the country has changed dramatically,” says Cyd Zeigler, who co-founded Outsports, a news website that highlights the stories of LGBT athletes, in 1999. “Two men getting married wasn’t even a possibility when we started Outsports. Now it’s a reality in Birmingham, Alabama. There are gay role models at every turn – on television, on local sports, and in our communities.”

Even so, the last time that the United States sent an openly gay man to any Olympic Games was in 2004, when equestrians Guenter Seidel and Robert Dover won bronze in team dressage. It was Dover’s sixth time representing the United States at the Olympics; during his second Games, in 1988, Dover came out, becoming the first openly gay athlete to compete in the modern Olympics.

"I wish that all gay athletes would come out in all disciplines – football, baseball, the Olympics, whatever," Dover has said. "After six Olympics, I know they're in every sport. You just have to spend one day in the housing, the gyms, or at dinner to realize we're all over."

Indeed, by the time Dover came out on the international stage, it was clear that gay athletes were competing and winning in all levels of professional sports. Seven years earlier, tennis star Billie Jean King was famously outed when a lawsuit filed by a former lover led her to publicly admit to having a lesbian affair. (King promptly lost her all her professional endorsements, but later said she only wished that she had come out sooner.) And in 1982, former Olympian Tom Waddell – who would die from AIDS at the height of the epidemic five years later – helped found the first Gay Games for LGBT athletes. 1,350 athletes competed.

But it was more than a decade earlier when an openly gay athlete first performed in the Olympic Games. Just not exactly during competition.

English figure skater John Curry had barely come off the high of winning gold at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, when reporters caught wind of his sexuality from an article published in the International Herald Tribune. They cornered the skater in a press conference to grill him on matters most personal, according to Bill Jones’s Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry. Curry acknowledged that the rumors about his sexuality were true, but when journalists asked prurient questions betraying the era’s misconceptions about homosexuality and masculinity, Curry fought back: “I don’t think I lack virility, and what other people think of me doesn’t matter,” he said. “Do you think that what I did yesterday was not athletic?” (It should be noted as well that homosexual acts were outlawed in the U.K. at the time.)

But even though the competition was over for Curry, custom had it that medal winners were expected to appear in exhibition performances. There, in a fiery, unflinching athletic spectacle, Curry abandoned his usual lively routine of skips and hops for a stern technical masterpiece, making him the first openly gay athlete to perform on the Olympic stage.

“When everyone had telephoned their story and discussions broke out in many languages around the bar, opinion began to emerge that it was [Curry] who was normal and that it was we who were abnormal,” wrote Christopher Brasher, a reporter for The Observer, in his coverage that year.

LGBT journalists and historians, including Zeigler and Tony Scupham-Bilton, have catalogued the many Olympians who were homosexual but competed in a time before being “out” was safe and acceptable. German runner Otto Peltzer, for instance, competed in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, but was arrested by the Nazis in 1934 for his homosexuality and was later sent to the concentration camps. In more recent years, athletes have waited to come out until after their time in competition was over, including figure skaters Johnny Weir and Brian Boitano and American diver Greg Louganis. Louganis was long rumored to be gay, but didn’t come out publicly until the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Gay Games: "Welcome to the Gay Games,” Louganis said to the crowd. “It's great to be out and proud."

Though the early history of openly gay Olympians is dotted with male athletes, openly gay women have quietly gained prevalence in recent competitions. French tennis player Amélie Mauresmo is among the first women to come out publicly prior to an Olympic appearance – though, Zeigler added, whether an athlete comes out publicly is based in part on the prominence of their sport outside the Olympics. In 1999, a year before her first Olympic competition, reporters questioned her sexuality after an opponent called her “half a man” for showing up to a match with her girlfriend. Mauresmo’s casual discussion of her sexuality as an integral part of her life and dismissal of concerns that she would lose sponsorship represented a shift in the stigma surrounding coming out as an athlete. Fear of commercial failure still underpinned many athletes’ decisions not to come out, but Mauresmo was undaunted.

“No matter what I do, there will always be people against me,” Mauresmo has said. “With that in mind, I decided to make my sexuality clear… I wanted to say it once and for all. And now I want us to talk about tennis.” Mauresmo still faced criticism for her “masculinity.” But her sponsor, Nike, embraced her muscular look by designing clothes that would display her strength, according to the 2016 book Out in Sport. Mauresmo went on to win silver in women’s singles in 2004.

At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, 11 openly gay athletes competed, only one of whom – Australian diver Matthew Mitcham, who won gold and is a vocal LGBT activist – was a man. All six openly gay athletes at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver were women, as were all seven of the openly gay athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Both of the intervening Summer Olympics saw a greater turnout of openly gay athletes, but women still held the large majority. In 2016, four of the players on the U.S. women’s basketball team – Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, Seimone Augustus and Angel McCoughtry––were openly gay.

This accounting of course elides that sexual orientation is a spectrum. Olympians who openly identify as bisexual, for instance, are growing in number as well. Additionally, the International Olympic Committee, and the many governing bodies within, have made some strides when it comes to recognizing that gender is not binary, though policies for transgender athletes remain a thorny debate among officials and athletes. That being said, the IOC allowed pre-surgery transgender athletes to take part in the 2016 Rio Games.

With this year’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Rippon and Kenworthy are the first openly gay American men to compete in the Olympics since the legality of same-sex marriage was established throughout the United States in 2015, and the cultural shift is apparent. While American tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who came out in 1981 but competed as an Olympian for the first time in 2004, has said that coming out in 1981 cost her $10 million in sponsorships, Kenworthy boasts sponsorships with Visa, Toyota and Ralph Lauren, to name a few. The skier also recently appeared in an ad for Head & Shoulders, with a rainbow pride flag waving behind him.

“The atmosphere for LGBT athletes has changed quicker in past decade,” says Scupham-Bilton, LGBT and Olympic historian. “In the 20th century there was more homophobia in sport and society in general. As the increase in LGBT equality has progressed, so has acceptance of LGBT athletes.”

There’s one notable exception: Sochi 2014. The summer before hosting the Winter Olympics, in what many saw as an affront to gay rights activism, the Russian government passed a law prohibiting the promotion of “nontraditional” sexual relationships to minors. The United States used the Olympic platform as an opportunity for subtle protest, including prominent gay athletes Brian Boitano, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow in its Olympic delegation, and protests were staged across the world. Despite the outpouring of international support, Canadian figure skater Eric Radford opted to wait until after Sochi to come out, citing his desire to be recognized for his skill, rather than his sexuality. He’s already made his mark at the Pyeongchang Games, where his performance with skating partner Meagan Duhamel vaulted Canada to the top of the team figure skating competition.

Rippon and Kenworthy have used their newfound platforms to make statements on political issues. Rippon recently made headlines when he refused an offer to meet with Vice President Mike Pence due to disagreements with his stances on LGBT rights – which include past statements that appear to support funding gay conversion therapy. Pence’s former press secretary denied his support for gay conversion therapy during the 2016 presidential campaign. Kenworthy also criticized the Vice President as a “bad fit” to lead the United States' delegation at the Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang on Friday.

Political platforms and sponsorships aside, Rippon and Kenworthy ultimately hoped that by coming out they could live as freer, more authentic versions of themselves – and empower others to do the same.

“There is pressure that comes with this responsibility and I feel I have a responsibility to the LGBT community now,” Kenworthy has said. “I want to be a positive example and an inspiration for any kids that I can.”

A Brief History of the Stoplight

Smithsonian Magazine

Driving home from a dinner party on a March night in 1913, the oil magnate George Harbaugh turned on to Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue. It was one of the city’s busiest streets, jammed with automobiles, horse-drawn carriages, bicyclists, trolleys and pedestrians, all believing they had the right of way. Harbaugh did not see the streetcar until it smashed into his roadster. “It is remarkable,” the local newspaper reported, “that the passengers escaped with their lives.”

Many others wouldn’t. More than 4,000 people died in car crashes in the United States in 1913, the same year that Model T’s started to roll off Henry Ford’s assembly line. The nation’s roads weren’t built for vehicles that could speed along at 40 miles an hour, and when those unforgiving machines met at a crowded intersection, there was confusion and, often, collision. Though police officers stood in the center of many of the most dangerous crossroads blowing whistles and waving their arms, few drivers paid attention.

A Cleveland engineer named James Hoge had a solution for all this chaos. Borrowing the red and green signals long used by railroads, and tapping into the electricity that ran through the trolley lines, Hoge created the first “municipal traffic control system.” Patented 100 years ago, Hoge’s invention was the forerunner of a ubiquitous and uncelebrated device that has shaped American cities and daily life ever since-—the stoplight.

Hoge’s light made its debut on Euclid Avenue at 105th Street in Cleveland in 1914 (before the patent was issued). Drivers approaching the intersection now saw two lights suspended above it. A policeman sitting in a booth on the sidewalk controlled the signals with a flip of a switch. “The public is pleased with its operation, as it makes for greater safety, speeds up traffic, and largely controls pedestrians in their movements across the street,” the city’s public safety director wrote after a year of operation.

Others were already experimenting with and improving upon Hoge’s concept, until various inventors had refined the design to the one that controls traffic and raises blood pressure today. We have
William Potts, a Detroit police officer who had studied electrical engineering, to thank for the yellow light, but as a municipal employee he could not patent his invention.

By 1930, all major American cities and many small towns had at least one electric traffic signal, and the innovation was spreading around the world. The simple device tamed the streets; motor vehicle fatality rates in the United States fell by more than 50 percent between 1914 and 1930. And the technology became a symbol of progress. To be a “one stoplight town” was an embarrassment. “Because of the potent power of suggestion, [or] a delusion of grandeur, almost every crossroad hamlet, village, and town installed it where it was neither ornate nor useful,” the Ohio Department of Highways grumbled.

An additional complaint that gained traction was the device’s unfortunate impact on civility. Long before today’s epidemic of road rage, critics warned that drivers had surrendered some of their humanity; they didn’t have to acknowledge each other or pedestrians at intersections, but rather just stare at the light and wait for it to change. As early as 1916, the Detroit Automobile Club found it necessary to declare a “Courtesy Week,” during which drivers were encouraged to display “the breeding that motorists are expected to manifest in all other human relations.” As personal interactions declined, a new, particularly modern scourge appeared—impatience. In 1930, a Michigan policeman noted that drivers “are becoming more and more critical and will not tolerate sitting under red lights.”

The new rules of the road took some getting used to, and some indoctrination. In 1919, a Cleveland teacher invented a game to teach children how to recognize traffic signals, and today, kids still play a version of it, Red Light, Green Light. Within a few decades, the traffic light symbol had been incorporated into children’s entertainment and toys. Heeding the signals has become so ingrained that it governs all kinds of non-driving behavior. Elementary schools put the brakes on bad behavior with traffic light flashcards, and a pediatrician created the “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right” program to promote healthful eating. Sexual assault prevention programs have adopted the traffic light scheme to signal consent. And the consulting firm Booz Allen suggested in 2002 that companies assess their CEOs as crisis (“red light”), visionary (“green light”) or analytical (“yellow light”) leaders. You can even find the colorful cues on the soccer field: A referee first issues a yellow warning card before holding up the red card, which tells the offending player to hit the road, so to speak.

A newsboy’s stand and traffic light in Los Angeles, 1942 (Library of Congress)

In a century the traffic light went from a contraption that only an engineer could love to a pervasive feature of everyday life—there are some two million of them in the United States today—and a powerful symbol. But its future is not bright. Driverless vehicles are the 21st-century’s Model T, poised to dramatically change not only how we move from place to place but also our very surroundings. Researchers are already designing “autonomous intersections,” where smart cars will practice the art of nonverbal communication to optimize traffic flow, as drivers themselves once did. Traffic lights will begin to disappear from the landscape, and the new sign of modernity will be living in a “no stoplight town.”

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

U.S. crosswalk signals are downright pedestrian. but others are so clever they’ll stop you in your tracks.

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

A Canadian First Nation Community Is in the Grips of a Suicide Crisis

Smithsonian Magazine

What constitutes an emergency? A fire, tornado or outbreak of an infectious disease may come to mind. But for the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario, Canada, something slightly different—but no less dire—prompted the declaration of a state of emergency last week. As NPR’s Camila Domonoske reports, the Cree community of 2,000 declared a state of emergency after a series of suicide attempts, 11 of which took place on Saturday night alone.

The rash of suicide attempts in the isolated northern community has spiked in recent months; Domonoske notes that in March, 28 people attempted to take their own lives. The state of emergency was declared by the First Nation’s chief, Bruce Shisheesh, and the Attawapiskat Council. In a statement, Shisheesh wrote that “community front line resources are exhausted and no additional outside resources are available.” By putting Attawapiskat in a state of emergency, Shisheesh is formally calling on the Canadian government to help address the growing epidemic.

The string of suicides and suicide attempts over the last several months included the self-inflicted death of a 13-year-old girl who was bullied in school. The roots of the epidemic go deep. Not only are Canada’s more remote First Nations largely bereft of mental health resources, they’re also in the midst of a more widespread crisis of poverty and neglect. The CBC reports that Attawapiskat has declared a number of other states of emergency in recent years related to sewer backups, housing shortages that forced residents to live in tents and unheated trailers and deteriorating drinking water quality. Unemployment, annual flooding and the isolated geography of northern Ontario also puts community members at particular risk.

Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, a Canadian broadcast network, reports that during an emergency debate in Canada’s House of Commons on the issues Tuesday night, members of parliament spent five-and-a-half hours discussing the issues that plague indigenous youth. Health Minister Jane Philpott shared findings that among First Nation males, suicide rates are 10 times higher than non-indigenous males of the same age. For young women, the toll is even worse, Philpott said—young indigenous women are 21 times more likely to take their own lives. During the emergency meeting, child welfare, housing and nation-to-nation relationships between Canada and First Nations were also discussed.

Attawapiskat isn’t the only First Nation community that is in the midst of a suicide crisis: as the CBC reports, Manitoba’s Pimicikamak Cree Nation declared a state of emergency last month after six of its 5,800-person community committed suicide and 100 were placed on an at-risk list.

The state of emergency has drawn pledges from government organizations like Health Canada to send additional resources and mental health counselors to Attawapiskat. But only time will tell whether these efforts to help Cree youth will merely provide a short-term fix—or find ways to delve into the systemic issues that continue to threaten so many indigenous lives today.

A Guide to What to Know About COVID-19

Smithsonian Magazine

Since Saturday, the United States has reported its first six known COVID-19-related deaths, all in the Seattle area, prompting Washington state Governor Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency. On Sunday, both Rhode Island and New York announced their first probable cases of coronavirus, making them the second and third states on the east coast (after Massachusetts).

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintain that the immediate health risk posed by COVID-19 remains low for the general American public, Nancy Messonnier, director of the organization’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, has warned that the disease’s spread throughout the country is “not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen.”

As the coronavirus—now officially named SARS-CoV-2—spreads, so too has misinformation, stymieing efforts to educate and protect the global community. Many questions about the virus and the disease remain unanswered. Thanks in part to a solid understanding of other types of coronaviruses that have plagued us in the past, researchers are quickly homing in on COVID-19’s potential impacts and identifying some of the most important preventative measures people can take. Here’s a quick rundown of what we have learned so far.

Under a microscope, coronaviruses have the appearance of a crown, hence corona. (Image Courtesy of Center for Disease Control and Prevention )

What exactly is COVID-19?

First, let’s get some terms straight. SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus that’s spreading; COVID-19 is the disease it causes. Although most media reports have used the term “coronavirus” to describe SARS-CoV-2, the term is, by itself, not very informative.

Ccoronaviruses comprise an entire branch of the virus family tree that includes the disease-causing pathogens behind SARS, MERS and several variants of the common cold. Using “coronavirus” to refer to a potentially dangerous viral strain is a little bit like saying “mammal” when you mean “lion,” technically accurate, but not specific.

The fact that this new virus belongs to the coronavirus group, however, is telling, as humans have encountered plenty of these pathogens before. Named for the spiky, crown-like fringe that shrouds each viral particle—giving them a “coronated” appearance—coronaviruses tend to target the respiratory systems of bats and other mammals, as well as birds. More often than not, the viruses remain restricted to their wild hosts. But occasionally, they make the hop into humans, as occurred with the 2003 SARS and 2012 MERS outbreaks, both of which likely originated in bats.

The animal source of SARS-CoV-2 has yet to be pinpointed definitively. Given the history, bats remain a probable culprit, with some researchers suspecting the pangolin—an endangered mammal prized on the black market for its scales—as a potential intermediary, reports Joel Achenbach for the Washington Post.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19, and how is it transmitted?

Like other coronaviruses, the COVID-19 virus infiltrates the airways of its hosts. At worst, these pathogens can cause severe forms of viral pneumonia, which in some cases leads to death. Though researchers caution that numbers could shift as the outbreak progresses, the new coronavirus’s fatality rate appears to be around 2 percent. That’s a small fraction of the 10 and 35 percent figures reported for SARS and MERS, respectively.

The vast majority of COVID-19 cases—about 80 percent—appear to be mild, causing a spate of cold-like symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath and fever. Many people are suspected to carry the virus without presenting any symptoms. As physicians continue to identify more of these less-severe cases, which are more difficult to detect, the COVID-19 death rate may drop closer to 1 percent or even below it, reports Denise Grady for the New York Times.

That said, in the few months since it was first reported in China’s Hubei province, COVID-19 has killed about 3,000 people. That’s more than SARS (about 770 deaths) and MERS (about 850 deaths) combined. COVID-19’s death rate suggests the virus is more contagious than these predecessors, as well as most strains of the distantly related influenza virus, according to the Times. (According to the CDC, severe cases of the flu lead to at least 140,000 hospitalizations in the United States each year out of a total of more than 9 million cases of influenza documented annually. With an average of 12,000 deaths each year, influenza’s death rate is about 0.1 percent.)

A reported 2,873 deaths have occurred in Hubei province alone. According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19’s death rate increases with age, with the highest mortality rate of 21.9 percent occurring among people over 80 years of age. Those with underlying medical issues including respiratory and heart conditions, as well as smokers, are among those at highest risk, reports Allison Aubrey at NPR. Despite some reports to the contrary, children can be infected, but appear less vulnerable. Importantly, a multitude of factors—including many that scientists don’t yet understand—can affect how a given person tolerates an infection.

The virus is capable of moving directly from person to person through droplets produced by coughs or sneezes that travel through the air to settle directly on skin or frequently touched surfaces, like doorknobs or cell phones. After a person is exposed, symptoms can take weeks to appear, if they do at all. Those who carry the virus without showing signs of illness can still spread the disease.

How can I protect myself and others?

To avoid infection, the CDC recommends the same preventative actions one should follow during flu season. The top tip? Wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating, after using the bathroom, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Though soap doesn’t destroy viruses, it plays a big role in dislodging them from skin. If you cannot wash your hands, the CDC notes that alcohol-based sanitizers are a decent second option as long as the sanitizer contains at least 60 percent alcohol. If your hands are visibly dirty, hand sanitizer will not be effective. (Some sanitizers labeled “anti-bacterial” contain only antibiotics, which will not protect against viruses.)

Based on preliminary estimates of contagiousness, those infected with SARS-CoV-2 are expected to infect two or three more people on average, according to WHO. If someone is already sick, wearing a face mask can reduce the spread of disease. However, most face masks, including loose-fitting surgical masks, are not effective at protecting individuals from respiratory diseases. Even medical-grade N95 masks, named for their ability to filter 95 percent of airborne particles, are difficult to use without training and won’t be airtight unless they are professionally fit-tested, says Timothy Brewer, an epidemiologist at UCLA, to Washington Post. Ultimately, N95 masks should be reserved for health workers and those who suspect they may have fallen ill.

Above all, don’t panic, Brewer tells Washington Post. While many media outlets have framed the current situation as one that does not “yet” warrant panic, at no point will excessive anxiety or rash behavior help contain the pathogen’s spread. Infection is by no means a death sentence, and should not be treated as one. “Don’t let fear and emotion drive the response to this virus,” Brewer says.

What about antiviral treatments or a vaccine?

Vaccines to combat SARS-CoV-2 are being developed, but requisite safety testing is likely to keep any new formulation off the market for months or possibly years. Vaccines also tend to be less effective in older individuals with weaker immune systems—the very people that the virus most strongly affects.

However, a drug to treat patients may be available sooner, reports Matthew Herper and Damien Garde for STAT News. It is important to remember that thousands—approximately 45,000 people in total, according to Johns Hopkins University—around the world have already recovered from the disease—many never knowing they had it in the first place.

What has been the economic and cultural impact of the outbreak?

As of Monday, March 2, SARS-CoV-2 had reached at least 60 countries. But nearly all nations have been affected by the disease’s cultural aftershocks as the global community struggles to contain its spread.

As businesses and cultural institutions continue to close, economists warn of severe stagnation in the global economy. Here in the United States, the government has issued travel alerts for China, South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan—the five countries with the most cases to date—stressing that all non-essential trips should be canceled or postponed. The American stock market just suffered through its worst week since the 2008 Great Recession.

In Japan, lawmakers have shocked parents and guardians by suspending classes nationwide. China, which celebrated Lunar New Year at the end of January, has struggled to get back on its feet as workers remain homebound, leaving factories empty and international orders for products unmet. In France, where at least two people have died from the disease, indoor gatherings of 5,000 people or more are now prohibited, and the Louvre museum has closed its doors.

Following close on the virus’ heels has also been a wave of prejudice against people of Asian ancestry. Reports of people avoiding Chinese restaurants and shirking packages shipped from China have peppered the news cycle. (To be clear, Chinese food is no riskier than any other cuisine. Receiving packages from China also remains completely safe, according to the World Health Organization. Viruses, which need to enter living cells to replicate and propagate, don’t last long on objects exposed to the elements, especially when they’re being shipped overseas at room temperature.)

A similar display of discrimination followed the spread of SARS in 2003, when media reports began to ubiquitously lead their coverage with images of people of Asian descent wearing face masks. As medical anthropologist Laura Eichelberger told Undark magazine last month, these “innumerable pictures … racialized the epidemic by identifying Asian bodies as the source of contagion, contributing to their stigmatization.”

Locations with confirmed COVID-19 cases (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

What’s next?

In anticipation of COVID-19’s continued spread, the United States has ramped up its diagnostic efforts, which will undoubtedly reveal more cases, reports Nell Greenfieldboyce for NPR. These reports aren’t necessarily an indication that the virus is spreading faster, only that health officials are becoming more aware of its movements within American borders.

Like other coronaviruses as well as the flu, SARS-CoV-2 might follow a seasonal pattern, waning as the weather warms before rising to a second peak in the fall. But this ebb and flow is not guaranteed, and most experts hesitate to forecast when the outbreak will come to a close. Before then, thousands more will certainly be sickened, likely reaching the point where COVID-19 becomes a pandemic, or a disease that’s rapidly spread worldwide, according to the WHO. So far, both the CDC and WHO have been hesitant to give this formal designation, hoping to avoid triggering a panic.

Still, semantics don’t change reality. Officials worldwide have stressed the importance of practicality and preparedness for institutions and individuals. As hospitals revamp their protocols to ready themselves for an influx of patients, governments must weather what might be a prolonged period of suspended travel and trade.

Speaking with NPR, the Center for Global Health Science and Security’s Rebecca Katz recommends stocking up on essentials like medications and non-perishable pantry items, in case a local outbreak makes frequent trips to the store imprudent.

Above all, information and transparency remain humankind’s greatest weapons against disease—especially as the epidemic and its repercussions continue to evolve. The virus is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, and the best we can do is take its presence in stride and try to learn from past mistakes.

Tips for preventing the spread of germs, according to the CDC. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Glossary of COVID-19 terms


  • A medicine that specifically targets and inactivates viruses. Distinct from an antibiotic, which targets bacteria.


  • The simultaneous presence of two or more diseases in a patient. Patients with pre-existing respiratory illnesses, for example, face a higher mortality rate when infected with COVID-19.


  • The name given to the members of a large group of viruses that includes the disease-causing pathogens of COVID-19, SARS, MERS and several variants of the common cold.


  • The disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, first detected in China’s Hubei province in 2019. COVID-19 stands for “coronavirus disease 2019.”

Disease transmission

  • How a disease is transferred from person to person. COVID-19 is transmitted by droplets from the airways—the wet flecks produced by sneezing, coughing or sometimes even talking. If these droplets land on another person’s mouth, nose or eyes (or a hand that touches those parts), it can result in infection.


  • The spray produced by sneezing, coughing or sometimes even talking. When produced by a person infected by a pathogen, droplets can spread disease.


  • A large outbreak that spreads quickly or unexpectedly within a population or restricted geographic region.

Fatality or mortality rate; also called case fatality rate or crude fatality ratio (CFR)

  • In a group of people with a given disease, the proportion who die of the disease.


  • A sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease, above what is expected for a specific place or time.


  • An epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents at a rapid pace, usually affecting a large number of people.


  • Bacteria, viruses or other microorganisms that cause disease


  • The official name of the virus behind COVID-19, named for its genetic similarity to SARS-CoV, which caused an outbreak of SARS in 2003. Often referred to as the “novel” or “new” coronavirus, or simply “coronavirus.”


  • A set of negative and unfair beliefs associated with a specific group of people. The COVID-19 outbreak has triggered extreme stigmatization of people with cold-like symptoms, especially those of Asian descent.


  • A medical formulation that teaches the immune system to recognize and destroy a pathogen without causing disease. This is usually accomplished by introducing the body to a weakened or partial form of the pathogen in question. No vaccine yet exists for SARS-CoV-2.


  • A term used to describe a disease that passes from animals to people. Many coronaviruses, including SARS, MERS, and SARS-CoV-2, are zoonotic in nature.

A New Report Identifies 30 Technologies That Will Save Lives in the Next 15 Years

Smithsonian Magazine

President Obama wasn't the only head of state visiting Ethiopia this summer. In early July, the United Nations brought global leaders to Addis Ababa, for the third annual International Conference on Financing for Development. The goal of the meeting was to outline what the UN calls Sustainanble Development Goals—a series of financial, social and technological targets that they want countries in the developing world to hit by 2030.

At the conference, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Government of Norway, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and global health nonprofit PATH released "Reimagining Global Health," a report outlining 30 innovations that will save lives in the next 15 years. The team spent a year analyzing current and future technology, by reaching out to all the partners they work with in the world of international health. They received 500 nominations from entrepreneurs, scientists and other experts in nearly 50 countries, which a panel of 60 health experts reviewed and whittled down to a short list of easy-to-use technologies that they felt could reduce child mortality, improve maternal health and reproductive rights, and combat both infectious and noncommunicable diseases.

By 2030, USAID, the Gates Foundation and PATH want to reduce the global maternal mortality rate to less than 70 per 100,000 live births; end preventable deaths of newborns and children under five years old; reduce premature mortality from noncommunicable diseases by a third; ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services; end the epidemics of AIDS, TB, malaria and neglected tropical diseases; and combat other infectious diseases.

The groups want to consolidate investments from philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation and from government groups to go to the most high value projects, so that their products and services are cheap and accessible. “Strengthening the capacity of low- and middle-income countries to identify, develop, adapt, produce, regulate, assess, and share innovations is critical for a robust innovation pipeline,” says Amie Batson, Chief Strategy Officer at PATH said in an email.

Making communities healthier also makes them more financially resilient. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who also contributed to the report, says that by investing in health technology now, globally we can save significant money and lives down the road. “With the right investments, we could reach grand convergence in just one generation, averting 10 million deaths every year by 2035. But today’s health tools alone won’t get us there,” says Summers in the report.

Here are eight of the 30 new drugs, diagnostics, devices and services poised to help the developing world:

Easily-transportable vaccines can help treat communicable diseases. (Gabe Bienczycki)

Chlorhexidine for Umbilical Cord Care

In the developed world, medical professionals clean babies' umbilical cords shortly after birth. But in the developing world, hundreds of thousands of newborns die each year from infections related to lack of antiseptic at delivery. If $81 million was spent on introducing chlorhexidine in home settings in the developing world in the next 15 years, the authors of the report estimate that more than 1 million neonatal lives could be saved, resulting in a 9 percent reduction in deaths due to sepsis.

Uterine Balloon Tamponades

One of the biggest causes of maternal death is postpartum hemorrhage, which can be stopped or slowed by inserting an inflatable tamponade into the uterus. Because of cost and lack of training, the devices haven't been used in the developing world. The report highlights one easy-to-use, low-cost option, called Every Second Matters for Mothers and Babies. Basically, a condom is attached to a catheter that's inflated with water through a syringe and a one-way valve. By investing $27 million in these devices, the group estimates that 169,000 mothers' lives could be saved in the next decade and a half.

Neonatal Resuscitators

Low-cost neonatal resuscitators could help the one in 10 babies who have trouble breathing at birth. They've been hard to bring into the developing world, because of cost, so these groups are working to identify and develop cheap, reuseable and easy-to-use options, including ones that health care workers can operate by hand.

Antiretrovirals for HIV That Can Be Injected Every Two Months

HIV is virulent and widespread in sub-Sarahan Africa, so, to try to slow the spread, these groups are looking at long-lasting drugs that could be injected into HIV patients every two months to treat symptoms and slow the virus' progression to AIDS. These options could prove more effective than easily forgotten daily pills.

Single-dose Antimalarial Drug

Malaria treatment is tricky for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones is that the Plasmodium parasites that cause it, transmitted to humans by mosquitoes, are developing resistance to existing drugs. A single-dose antimalarial drug, OZ439, knocks out the resistant strains without giving them time to develop against the infectious disease. This solution will be critical to the 200 million people fighting malaria each year.

Portable Eye Scanners

For the 300 million people who experience it worlwide, visual impairment can have a huge impact on quality of life. But most eye troubles can be treated. The authors of the report acknowledge that, with little training, people in remote villages where eye doctors are few and far between could use portable, user-friendly eye scanners, like the 3nethraClassic, to diagnose cataracts, glaucoma and other conditions.

mHealth Innovations

Many non-communicable diseases, such as diabeties and heart disease, can be managed with diet and exercise. This often involves patients changing their habits and routines, but these life changes can be hard to track and stick to, especially if frequent checkups with doctors aren't an option. In the next 15 years, the report speculates that low-cost mobile phones will be leveraged to track behavioral changes. Doctors could send texts and patients could report to networks that hold them accountable.

Injectable Contraceptives

Last year, PATH developed Sayana Press, an injectable contraceptive that lasts for three months. Unlike other contraceptives of this type, this one is designed for home use. The single-use shots can be distributed to individuals, who can discretely administer them on their own.

A Pioneering Force of Harlequin Frogs Set Out to Help Save Their Species

Smithsonian Magazine

A green and black frog crawls up a steep rock. Though a collection of drab electronic circuits is secured around his waist by a thin cotton belt, the amphibian handles the ascent with easy agility. This Limosa harlequin frog is part of an experiment to find out if captive-bred endangered frogs can be successfully released into the wild and tracked with radio transmitters.

Amphibians all around the world are rapidly disappearing because of the deadly chytrid fungus. Infected animals slow down, stop eating and frequently die. Zoos and aquariums have stepped in to preserve many of these endangered species by maintaining them in captivity. Between 2008 and 2010, as chytrid was killing off the amphibians, the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project rescued a population of breeding animals and held them captive for their own safety. But the researchers want to know if those animals that were reared for generations in captivity will ever be able to go back into the wild.

Researchers from Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)  and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute are trying to answer that question by releasing 90 Limosa harlequin frogs into their native habitat, the Mamoní Valley Preserve in Panama and tracking them with tiny radio transmitters.

Sixty of the frogs were given "soft releases," which involved being kept in cages in the field for a month before release. This allowed them to acclimate to wild conditions and feed on invertebrates while being protected from predators. Another 30 frogs were released to set out as pioneers into the wild without an acclimatization period. Researchers will compare the relative success of each group to find out whether one method works better than the other.

“Our primary question for this study is how can we transition frogs from captivity to a wild situation in a way that is going to maximize the chances that these frogs are going to survive,” says Brian Gratwicke, a conservation biologist at SCBI and international program coordinator for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. “So if they were to all get eaten in one day by a hungry snake, or a raccoon, or something, then we would need to be able to study the effects of disease in these animals.”

Sixteen of the frogs (eight from each group) have been outfitted with radio transmitters weighing only a third of a gram. While radio collar studies on larger animals have been state-of-the-art for decades, this kind of ultra-small technology for tracking frogs did not exist until relatively recently. In any collar study, important consideration has to be given to how the tracking apparatus may interfere with the animal's movement and ability to evade predators. Smithsonian scientists initially tested the devices on frogs in captivity before deploying them in this first field test.

The least disruptive place to attach the tracking device was around the waists of the frogs, like a utility belt. The belt is made of thin cotton cord that will naturally fall apart after about a month, ensuring that the frogs aren't stuck wearing these devices long after the batteries have died. To prevent the string from cutting into the frogs' skin, the researchers ran it through a section of soft plastic tubing. The result doesn't seem to interfere with the frogs' lives at all.

“One of our colleagues who was working on this has photos of two frogs [of a different species] mating with the transmitters on,” Gratwicke says. “These harlequin frogs are easy to put transmitters on because their skin is not slippery. . . so far none of the transmitters have come off.”

Gratwicke says that maintaining a species like this in captivity requires between 200 and 300 adult animals that are evenly represented from about ten original pairs. They only need to keep up to 20 eggs from any one clutch for the breeding program. With limited space to raise tadpoles and frogs, they can't risk being overwhelmed and don't want the population to become overly skewed towards one genetic sub-group.

“We had a single clutch of eggs that we reared for this experiment,” Gratwicke says. “Five hundred and thirty of them. That means that clutch is over-represented in captivity.”

This was how Smithsonian was able to risk experimentally releasing 90 frogs from the captive adult breeding population of only 220. They allowed far more eggs than usual to hatch from a single clutch.

Eventually, the fungus is expected to kill off the descendants of the released frogs. But there is hope for the long run.

“One of the ideas out there is that when the epidemic came through, there was so much of the fungus that built up from so many frogs dying that it was detrimental,” Gratwicke says. “But after chytrid is endemic for a while, those rates kind of drop and stabilize and perhaps it might be a situation where frogs can become infected and then clear an infection.”

Gratwicke and his team have found that the frogs tend to stay right in the immediate area where they were released. Even the 74 frogs without transmitters have been relatively easy to keep track of and locate. Mostly.

“So far we've only had one frog that has been eaten,” Gratwicke says. “We're not sure what ate it. Our guy in the field found a guilty-looking scorpion next to the frog's carcass.”

A Quarter of the World’s Saiga Antelope Are Dead

Smithsonian Magazine

Spirited, slightly weird-looking and instantly recognizable, the Saiga antelope find safety in numbers during their spectacular mass migrations. But since the early 2000s, they’ve been considered critically endangered. Now, the fragile antelopes are doing something else en masse: dying. As the BBC’s Victoria Gill reports, a quarter of the world’s saiga population is thought to have died in Mongolia.

It’s devastating news for a species whose existence is already under threat. Scientists tell Gill that ovine rinderpest, a disease also known as sheep plague, Peste des Petits Ruminants or PPR, is to blame. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the highly contagious disease can affect up to 90 percent of an animal herd and kills up to 70 percent of the animals who contract it. PPR is viral and has a range of symptoms, including fevers, stomach problems and pneumonia among others. It is spread by close contact between animals—and for free-ranging creatures like antelope, who are not managed by farmers or keepers, it can rage unchecked.

The news is especially devastating for Saiga antelope, whose numbers are already so low the entire species is considered critically endangered by the IUCN. Though a population of at least one million is thought to have existed as late as 1994, their numbers have since dwindled. The animals were poached into oblivion by hunters who sought their horns to sell them to Asian countries for medical use. As The New York Times’ Erica Goode reports, only 50,000 Mongolian saiga are thought to live today.

This isn’t the first time saiga have been wiped out. In 2015, nearly half of the global population—over 120,00 animals—died over the course of just two weeks. Though the cause was initially a mystery, scientists and conservationists now think it was due to a bacterial infection. Altogether, 95 percent of the animals have been lost in just a decade.

How can the potentially disastrous epidemic be halted? As Gill reports, animal carcasses are being burned to prevent PPR from spreading. But the animals that do survive could be weak and susceptible to other diseases and conservationists worry that the species could now be doomed. That’s horrible news not just for the antelope, but for the ecosystem of the grasslands where they live. Other animals could catch PPR, and endangered snow leopards, who rely on saiga for food, could suffer, too. The race is on to eradicate PPR and save these strange-looking antelopes from extinction.

A Shrew-Borne Virus Is Responsible for Deadly Brain Infections in Humans

Smithsonian Magazine

For centuries, Borna disease virus has plagued the livestock of Europe, leaving horses, sheep, cattle and other domesticated animals reeling from a bizarre and often deadly combination of neurological symptoms. Once stricken, usually by picking up the pathogen from an infected but symptomless shrew, animals would act aggressively, stagger about and smash their heads repeatedly into objects.

Slowly, the list of potential hosts began to grow. Cats, too, were vulnerable, researchers found, as well as dogs, foxes, primates and even birds. And when scientists began to experiment with the virus in the lab, they discovered that it could infect virtually any warm-blooded animal they tried.

The virus’ apparent ubiquity quickly sparked concern. Its hop into humans, some argued, seemed more a question of when than if.

Now, after years of fruitless searching for Borna in people, it’s clear that the virus indeed infects humans—and has likely been killing them for decades, reports Kai Kupferschmidt for Science magazine. In a study published this week in Lancet Infectious Diseases, researchers identified eight instances of lethal Borna disease in humans, roughly doubling the number of known infections in our species.

“Borna disease virus infection has to be considered a severe and potentially lethal human disease,” says study author Barbara Schmidt, a microbiologist at Regensburg University Hospital in Germany, in a statement.

But, on the whole, the average person’s risk of infection remains “pretty low,” study author Martin Beer, head of the Institute of Diagnostic Virology at the Friedrich Loeffler Institute in Germany, tells Tanya Lewis at Scientific American.

The findings come just five years after the first confirmed evidence of Borna disease virus entering the human population. In 2015, a strain of the pathogen killed at least four people after triggering severe inflammation, brought on by the immune system, in their brains. Three years later, another viral variant was discovered in the five other individuals, three of whom had recently received organ transplants, Lewis reports.

To better understand these patterns of infection, Beer and his colleagues searched for the genetic evidence of the virus in 56 samples of brain tissue collected in Germany between 1995 and 2018. All the patients had died from some kind of brain inflammation, which can result from autoimmune disease, cancer, infection and a variety of other conditions. Half the specimens had been logged without a known cause for the inflammation. In seven of these, the researchers discovered traces of Borna disease virus. An additional search at another German medical center turned up yet another case, bringing them to a total of eight patients, two of whom had been recipients of organ transplants.

Neither of the organ donors tested positive for the virus. And when the researchers sequenced the viral samples they’d extracted from the dead patients’ brains, they found the virus genomes bore relatively little resemblance to one another, suggesting each case of the disease made an independent jump from animal to person, rather than being passed from human to human.

Exactly how the transmissions occurred, however, is still up for debate, Beer tells Science magazine. Though bicolored white-toothed shrews (Crocidura leucodon) have previously been blamed for transmitting the disease to other animals, the sheer number of other species found to carry the virus leaves the human-infecting culprits mysterious. Five of the patients owned cats, at least two of which regularly gifted their humans with dead rodents and shrews.

Until more cases are identified, the method of transmission will probably remain mysterious, Norbert Nowotny, a virologist at the University of Vienna who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Science magazine.

So far, no known treatment for Borna disease exists, which seems to have a fairly high fatality rate across species (though a handful of human individuals have survived). But people shouldn’t panic: As Nowotny explains in a separate interview with Scientific American, the virus seems to have trouble traveling from person to person, and seems unlikely to cause an epidemic.

A Strange Case of Dancing Mania Struck Germany Six Centuries Ago Today

Smithsonian Magazine

Six-hundred and forty two years ago today, citizens in the German city of Aachen started to pour out of their houses and into the streets where they began to writhe and whirl uncontrollably. This was the first major outbreak of dancing plague or choreomania and it would spread across Europe in the next several years.

To this day, experts aren't sure what caused the frenzy, which could drive those who danced to exhaustion. The outbreak in Germany was called St. John's dance, but it wasn't the first appearance of the mania or the last, according to The Black Death and The Dancing Mania, originally published in 1888. In the book, Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker imaginatively describes the spectacle of St. John's dance as follows:

They formed circles hand in hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. They then complained of extreme oppression, and groaned as if in the agonies of death, until they were swathed in cloths bound tightly round their waists, upon which they again recovered, and remained free from complaint until the next attack.

The "disease" spread to Liege, Utrecht, Tongres and other towns in the Netherlands and Belgium, up and down the Rhine river. In other times and other forms the mania started to be called St. Vitus' dance. During the Middle Ages, the church held that the dancers had been possessed by the devil or perhaps cursed by a saint. Called Tarantism in Italy, it was believed the dancing was either brought on by the bite of a spider or a way to work out the poisons the arachnid had injected.

More modern interpretations have blamed a toxin produced by fungus that grew on rye. Ergot poisoning, or ergotism, could bring on hallucinations, spasms and delusions thanks to the psychoactive chemicals produced by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, writes Steven Gilbert for the Toxipedia.

But not all of the regions affected by the strange compulsion to dance would been home to people who consumed rye, points out Robert E. Bartholomew in an article for the July/August 2000 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Furthermore, the outbreaks didn't always happen during the wet season when the fungus would have grown.

St. Vitus' dance later came to mean Sydenham chorea, a disorder that struck children and did cause involuntary tremors in the arms, legs and face. However those twitches were not the kind of dancing described in the outbreaks of dancing mania.

Another notable epidemic broke out in the city of Strasbourg in 1518. It started in July when a woman called Frau Troffea began to dance. Within a month, 400 people joined in the madness. This plague in particular was probably worsened by apparently well-meaning officials who thought that the victims just needed to dance it out and shake it off. They set aside guild halls for the dancers, hired professional pipe and drum players and dancers to keep people inspired, writes John Waller for

Madness is ultimately what some experts think caused such a bizarre phenomenon. Waller explains that in 1518, the people of Strasbourg were struggling to deal with famine, disease and the belief that supernatural forces could force them to dance. In 1374, the region near the Rhine was suffering from the aftermath of another, true plague: the Black Death. Waller argues that the dancers were under extreme psychological distress and were able to enter a trance state—something they would need to dance for such a long period of time. He blames the dancing mania on a kind of mass hysteria.

Bartholomew disagrees. He points out that records from the time claim that the dancers were often from other regions. They were religious pilgrims, he posits. He writes:

The behavior of these dancers was described as strange, because while exhibiting actions that were part of the Christian tradition, and paying homage to Jesus, Mary, and various saints at chapels and shrines, other elements were foreign. Radulphus de Rivo’s chronicle Decani Tongrensis states that “in their songs they uttered the names of devils never before heard of . . . this strange sect.” Petrus de Herenthal writes in Vita Gregorii XI: “There came to Aachen . . . a curious sect.” The Chronicon Belgicum Magnumdescribes the participants as “a sect of dancers.”

Once the first dancers started their strange ritual, other people perhaps joined in, claiming to be overwhelmed by a compulsion. Societal prohibitions against such unrestrained behavior could then be cast aside.

Ultimately, the cause of choreomania seems to be mystery, but it will never cease to be a fascinating part of European history.

A World War I Soldier's Cholera Seemed Odd. 100 Years Later, Researchers Have Sequenced His Bacteria's Genome

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1916, a British soldier who fought in World War I was recuperating in Egypt after suffering cholera-like symptoms. Historic observations concluded the cholera bacteria in his system was unusual: it was antibiotic resistant and lacked flagellum, the appendage that allows the bacteria to move. The specimen is now believed to be the oldest “live” sample of Vibrio cholerae in existence; it had been freeze-dried in storage at England’s National Collection of Type Cultures since 1920.

Now, researchers at Public Health England and the Wellcombe Sanger Institute have sequenced the genome of the bacteria, providing insight into how the complex pathogen has changed over time, reports Kate Kelland at Reuters.

Cholera is a bacterial infection that can cause life-threatening diarrhea, in addition to intense vomiting and leg cramps. The Center for Disease Control estimates that “2.9 million cases and 95,000 deaths” occur globally each year. The infection is often mild or without symptoms, but in severe cases, “death can occur within hours,” according to the CDC.

Since 1817, there have been seven global cholera pandemics, including the current one that’s been going on since 1961. World War I happened during the sixth global cholera epidemic, which lasted from 1899 to 1923. Over two centuries, the quickly-mutating disease has thwarted efforts to control it.

Surprisingly, the cholera strain that the team sequenced called NCTC 30 turned out to be non-toxigenic, meaning it could not cause an infection and therefore, probably wasn’t the source of the soldier’s symptoms, Genomeweb reports. It was, however, still distantly related to cholera strains that initiated previous epidemics, including the one happening now. The new study appears in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“[U]nder the microscope, the bacterium looks broken; it lacks a flagellum—a thin tail that enables bacteria to swim,” study co-author Matthew Dorman, a graduate student at the Sanger Institute, says in a statement. “We discovered a mutation in a gene that's critical for growing flagella, which may be the reason for this characteristic."

NCTC 30 is also resistant to antibiotics, including penicillin. In fact, it’s possible that these bacteria learned how to fight off naturally-occurring antibiotics before Alexander Fleming isolated penicillin in 1928. According to the press release, this finding supports an emerging theory that some diseases developed antibiotic resistant capabilities even before humans discovered the class of drugs.

“Studying strains from different points in time can give deep insights into the evolution of this species of bacteria and link that to historical reports of human disease,” lead author Nick Thomson of the Wellcombe Sanger Institute says in a statement. “Even though this isolate did not cause an outbreak it is important to study those that do not cause disease as well as those that do. Hence this isolate represents a significant piece of the history of cholera, a disease that remains as important today as it was in past centuries."

A mother's solace: A letter from a World War I enemy

National Museum of American History

In 1922, four years after her American son was killed in action in World War I, Sallie Maxwell Bennett received a letter from Emil Merkelbach, a German officer who had fought against her son in the battle that ended his life.

Tan envelope with eight green postal stamps and German text

"You will look upon my writing, no doubt, as something unusual, and rightly so, for it is indeed not exactly usual for a former enemy of his own accord to report about his opponent in the World War. I was myself a German officer in the World War."

Portrait photograph of man standing on steps in German uniform

Emil Merkelbach was the leader of a German balloon squadron stationed in occupied northern France in August 1918. Balloons were used by both the Allied and Central powers during the war as a way to observe enemy targets at a greater distance and from behind the front lines, allowing armies to more accurately aim their long-range artillery. Antiaircraft machine guns defended the balloons from the ground and patrolling airplanes protected them from the air. Armies' reliance on balloon observations, and the firepower employed to protect them, made balloons both an important and dangerous target for fighter pilots like Louis Bennett Jr., Mrs. Bennett's son.

Eight uniformed soldiers sitting on grassy field

Louis, a Yale student from a prominent West Virginian family, had organized the West Virginia Flying Corps in early 1917 with the idea of training pilots to join the U.S. Army as part of a proposed West Virginia aerial unit. However, when the War Department rejected this idea and required that Louis go through the standard Army training program, he decided instead to join the British Royal Flying Corps (later the Royal Air Force or RAF) in October 1917 with the hope of fighting on the front as soon as possible. He left his studies at Yale in the middle of his Senior year and, after attending flight school in Canada and additional training in England, was eventually stationed in northern France in the summer of 1918.

During the ten days he served in combat before being killed in action, Louis shot down three enemy planes and nine balloons, four of which he shot down in one day. These feats not only earned him the distinction of being named a flying ace, and West Virginia's only World War I ace, but also placed him among the top of all World War I flying aces. Merkelbach saw Louis's impressive skill and total fearlessness first-hand on the battlefield, which he remembered years later and which eventually prompted him to write to Mrs. Bennett.

Four soldiers watching the sky, with gun pointed in the air

Men stand on the ground under a large inflated balloon

Merkelbach wrote:

"[I] had an opportunity to admire the keenness and bravery of your son; for this reason I should like to give you the following short description [of Louis's final battle]. . . . I had been up several hours observing, and was at a height of 1000 meters. Over the enemy's front circled continuously two hostile airplanes. . . . I immediately gave the command to my men below to haul in my balloon. . . . When still about 300 meters high, I saw [another] German balloon . . . plunge to earth burning. At the same moment I saw the hostile flyer (Louis) come toward my balloon at terrific speed, and immediately the defensive fire of my heavy machine rifles below and of the anti-aircraft guns began; but the hostile aviator did not concern himself about that. . . . [He] opened fire on me. . . . I saw the gleaming fire of the missiles flying toward me, but fortunately was not hit. The hostile machine was shot into flames by the fire of my machine guns. The enemy aviator tried to spring from the aeroplane before the latter plunged to the ground and burned completely."

Merkelbach ordered the ambulance corps to attend to the "brave and severely wounded enemy." Louis was unconscious and severely burned. Both of his legs were broken, and he had a bullet wound in his head. He died just hours later in a German field hospital on August 24, 1918. The Germans buried him with military honors in an unmarked grave.

"A bold and brave officer had met his death."

Man stands with bowed head and hat in hand in front of a cross

Back home in West Virginia, four days after her son's death, Mrs. Bennett received a telegram from the Secretary of the British Air Ministry informing her that Louis was missing in action. She immediately wrote to her contacts in Europe offering a reward for more information and promising that she would spare no expense to locate the body if he had been killed. Having lost her husband to unexpected illness only weeks earlier, Mrs. Bennett spent a desolate and difficult two months waiting for word of her son. While she continued to work her contacts in Europe to try to locate Louis, she received a number of conflicting accounts from members of his squadron, some stating that he had been taken as a prisoner of war, some stating that he had been killed.

In the midst of all of this, she was also struggling to help settle her late husband's estate and became gravely ill with the "Spanish flu" that was sweeping the globe in a deadly pandemic. Finally, at the end of October 1918, she received official confirmation from the American Red Cross that Louis had been killed in action two months earlier. Although conflicting reports stated that he was buried in either France or Belgium, at last she knew that he was gone.

Mrs. Bennett spent the next several months attempting to travel to Europe to locate Louis's grave, first using her influential contacts to obtain a passport and, once in England, to gain permission to travel to France. Finally, in March 1919, with the help of the U.S. Army, the American Red Cross, and the local villagers, she found herself standing at his unmarked grave, number 590, in a military cemetery in Wavrin, near Lille in northern France. She had finally found her son.

Left: a memorial wreath with an American, British and French flag. Right: a stone memorial

Despite his distinguished combat service, Louis Bennett Jr. never received any service awards from either the British or American governments. In an attempt to right this wrong Mrs. Bennett spent the rest of her life honoring her son's memory, eventually erecting memorials in three different countries. The first memorial was completed in 1919 when she rebuilt the church in Wavrin, France where Louis was buried. The church and town had been utterly destroyed by the retreating German army, and Mrs. Bennett rebuilt the church in dedication to her son's memory on the one-year anniversary of his death. The rebuilt church was also her way of thanking the local curate and villagers who had not only helped her locate Louis's grave, but had helped her smuggle his remains out of the military cemetery, in direct violation of French law, so he could eventually be laid to rest in West Virginia.

The memorials continued in 1922 with a stained glass window in Westminster Abbey overlooking the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Dedicated to Louis and to all members of Royal Flying Corps who died in World War I, the window features Archangel Michael, the patron saint of airmen, looking down at Louis, who is depicted as an angel holding a shield. In 1923 she donated a 16th-century Flemish tapestry in honor of Louis to St. Thomas's Church in New York City, where he had been confirmed as a boy.

Postcard of a red Victorian-style house surrounded by trees

In 1922 Mrs. Bennett donated the family's mansion and extensive collection of books to Lewis County as a war memorial and public library in honor of her deceased husband and son. The Louis Bennett Public Library opened in 1923 and is still in operation today. Mrs. Bennett also had the local airport renamed in Louis's honor and established a memorial organization that met every year in Weston on the anniversary of Louis's death to honor his memory. On Armistice Day in 1925, she unveiled The Aviator, a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall bronze sculpture sitting on a granite base. Sculpted by Augustus Lukeman, the sculpture features Louis in uniform with wings on his back and is dedicated to all Americans who lost their lives in World War I. The pedestal bears the inscription, "And thus this man died, leaving his spirit as an example of able courage, not only unto young men, but unto all the nation."

Man dressed at WWI pilot with wings

Although never given an official award for his service, Louis Bennett Jr.'s courage and skill clearly inspired those around him to honor his memory in their own way: from the enemy German army that buried him with full military honors, to his mother who memorialized him across multiple countries, and finally to Emil Merkelbach, an enemy officer, who was inspired to write a glowing, respectful letter in memorial four years after they had fought on the battlefield.

"I hope that the foregoing lines, a memorial to your son, will be received by you living—he was my bravest enemy. Honor to his memory. With respect, Emil Merkelbach"

Patri O'Gan is a project assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History. She recommends reading more about the Bennetts. She has also blogged about the creative use of cars, planes, and trains in the struggle for woman suffrage.

Patri O'Gan
OSayCanYouSee?d=qj6IDK7rITs OSayCanYouSee?d=7Q72WNTAKBA OSayCanYouSee?i=uQ4jbzN2JzA:wx0v9SdUQRM:V_sGLiPBpWU OSayCanYouSee?i=uQ4jbzN2JzA:wx0v9SdUQRM:gIN9vFwOqvQ OSayCanYouSee?d=yIl2AUoC8zA
1-24 of 373 Resources