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Module 2: Tuberculosis

“All Hallows”

Angelica pulls the plastic fangs from her mouth, rubbing at the sore spot they’ve made on her gums.

“I really don’t think these are actually ‘one size fits all’,” she grumbles.

The sky over historic Jamestown is growing dark, with torches fired up along the street competing with electric lights indoors. Though it is October, a few lingering insects still meander through the dusk. The class had arrived early that morning, waking up two hours before school began to meet the charter bus for the long ride. They had slept most of the way there, and spent the morning roaming the streets with Mrs. K. After lunch, their teacher had gone to an educational workshop, while they were left on their own until it was time to leave.

Angelica hands the fangs back to Fallon, adding “I can’t believe you scared that little kid earlier – it looked like he almost had a heart attack.” Earlier in the day, Fallon has surprised a younger tourist with his costume, a joke he had found quite amusing until he realized that Maxine was horrified. Since then, he had been sulking.

“Please . . . let’s just forget it, all right?” he murmurs.

“I still don’t understand why a colonial history site is selling Halloween costumes,” says Lang, who had been irked by the gift shop earlier. “Why are we here, again?”

“It was a historical comparison,” says Maxine, looking up from the brochure towards the nearest intersection. “We’re supposed to be learning about how diseases were treated in the past, not just modern medicine.”

In the morning, they had gone to a presentation on 17th Century medicine during which Lang had unsuccessfully tried to stay awake – at least, he thought, he never snored. From what he had gathered from the others, medicine was pretty frightening hundreds of years ago, with leeches and amputations and other things he didn’t want to think about. That and the moist environment around Jamestown had ensured that the settlers were constantly plagued by mosquitoes carrying nasty diseases.

A gnat lands on Lang’s forehead, which he swats quickly. “Do you know where we are?” he asks Maxine. “I thought the entrance was just up here.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, adjusting her glasses and turning back to the map, “but we’re definitely lost. We were supposed to meet Mrs. K half an hour ago – I wonder if the bus is here yet.”

Angelica looks back the way they came, towards the bend in the road leading to graveyard. A line of trees obstructs her view of the cemetery, and she’s partially thankful for it. Walking through the lines of moldering stones that morning, Maxine had started calculating from the legible inscriptions how long the residents of Jamestown had typically lived, arriving at an average in the thirties. At that rate, most of them would already be having mid-life crises in the colonial era – that is, if they had survived birth, which a display they had seen about midwifery suggested was a dangerous point in anyone’s life at that time. The idea of people dying so young was unsettling, and Angelica had been glad to leave the tombstones while Maxine was still calculating the average.

“Fallon, what are those?” says Mrs. K, walking up behind the group and eyeing the white plastic fangs.

“A souvenir?” he replies weakly, hoping one of his classmates won’t bring up his earlier antics. Maxine appears noticeably relieved by the sight of their instructor.

“I think we took a wrong turn about ten minutes ago,” she says. “The buildings all look the same, and the names on the map don’t always match the signs – if there are signs.”

“I figured you’d all gotten lost, or were stalling on purpose,” Mrs. K answers. “Either way, the bus is waiting, and I don’t think the driver is getting any more patient.”

* * *

Though many had intended to sleep the entire trip back, Mrs. K proved determined to make productive use of the time.

“So,” she started, addressing the four pairs of sagging eyes in front of her, “what did you learn today? What did colonial settlers have to worry about most? What medical improvements separate us from them?”

“They didn’t have insecticide,” offers Maxine, “so all those mosquito-borne illnesses were a bigger problem.”

“Right,” says Mrs. K, “they probably didn’t even know that they could get sick from mosquitoes – but we’ll talk about this more during the malaria unit.” She turns to Fallon. “What did you think of the surgical equipment?” she asks.

He glances up, realizing that he had been sleeping. “I . . . I’m glad we have real anesthesia,” he says, remembering the leather gag which, with a shot of rum, was the only thing dulling the pain for his colonial forebears.

“They probably didn’t disinfect their instruments,” says Angelica. “I wonder how many deaths were caused by bacterial infection, instead of the wound.”

“Very astute observation,” says Mrs. K. She looks again at Fallon, who is fidgeting with his plastic fangs. “Speaking of bacteria,” she says, “does anyone know where vampire legends in America came from.”

Fallon, realizing that Mrs. K is watching him, looks up. Four sets of blank stares confirm that none of them have completed the reading assignment from last night, and she sighs. “Well, perhaps when you get back, you can finish the homework you were supposed to do last night, and this time write a three page paper to prove you did it!”

The classmates groan, realizing that a very long day is about to become an even longer night.

1. What might have been some factors that increased the deadliness of tuberculosis in the past? What inventions might have made a difference?
2. What advice would they give colonial settlers on how to prevent infection? What might be some risks of modern medicine (think resistance)?
3. What strategies would you recommend to prevent drug-resistant bacteria from developing in a colonial community with seasonal infections?