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THE NEW MEDIA CENTER: Not Just for History--Primary Sources in the Science and Health Classroom

By Mary Alice Anderson - Posted Jan 27, 2014
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I had foot surgery! But don’t worry. This isn’t about my foot; it’s about how the X-rays got me thinking about shoe fluoroscopes. I suppose the last time I saw my bones, I was a child peering into a department store store’s fluoroscope, a special X-ray machine for feet. This led to an interesting conversation with the doctor and nurse. Fluoroscopes were used in shoe stores so parents and sales people could view a child’s feet. The image was a rather eerie green and black. Although fluoroscopes were banned from stores in the 1970s, modern fluoroscopes are still used in medicine and highly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I wanted to learn more. Searches led me to digital primary sources at the Library of Congress, where I found a Works Progress Administration worker’s memories of having tuberculosis and being flouroscoped. A Smithsonian magazine blog post with drawings and a video called the fluoroscope “a pseudoscientific machine that became a token of mid-century deception … While thrill-seeking children lined up to stick their feet in the machine, fluoroscopes everywhere were leaking radiation at a rate far exceeding the maximum allowable daily dose set out in national standards.” A short video, Shoe Store Fluoroscope, uses primary source photos and more drawings to explain the machines’ popularity and hazards.

Not Just for History!

Primary sources are not just for history—they can enhance learning, questioning, and creative thinking in the science or health classroom. Imagine the lively classroom discussion that could occur if students viewed photos of a fluoroscope or other medical object and tried to figure out its purpose. My quest to learn more about the fluoroscope led me to images at the National Museum of Health and Medicine and its very accessible collection. Health or science teachers could post photos of a health curriculum-related topic such smallpox, polio, dental equipment and procedures, or battlefield surgery for students to see as they enter the room.

This column features a few ideas for using primary sources in the science and health curriculum and suggestions for finding primary sources in sites we typically associate with history: LC, American Memory, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Classroom Ideas

• Science teachers often require students to maintain notes and journals. One teacher used Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and journals to help students understand the importance of scientific observation and note taking. The teacher was excited to see how those primary sources could enhance a chemistry or physics classroom. Physics students could study blueprints and drawings of structures such as bridges and buildings in a physics classroom.

• Elementary and middle school students could examine primary source photos of simple machines to identify and review their knowledge of this basic
scientific concept. Primary source images of landforms and geological fascinations ranging from mountains, volcanoes, rivers, oceans, and islands to rain, snow, geysers, and glaciers, etc., could enhance the earth science classroom. Teachers could preselect photos or direct students to locate their own in digital collections.

• A technical education instructor was excited when she discovered historic photos of X-ray equipment, historic newspaper articles about X-rays used in court trials and posters warning about the dangers of X-rays and radiation. One of the pictures is of a doctor taking a radiographic image. The equipment and patient protection are outdated. Learners can analyze the photo and reflect on the changes that have been made with regard to the equipment and protections standards we use today. It would be a great way to start a group discussion and surely would be more interesting than the historic background in the textbook.

• Historic letters, interviews, and documents can enhance learning about diseases and remedies. Use maps showing locations of diseases in 1874 to discuss where the outbreaks of diseases such as pneumonia and malaria occurred and then discuss why the diseases occurred. Compare it to a contemporary map of emerging
or reemerging diseases.

• LC’s Teachers’ blog recently featured ideas for teaching astronomy: Use history drawings by astronomers to help students understand eclipses and the solar system. “[I]nvite students to speculate on the information available to the person who created the model, to consider what those people believed caused an eclipse, and to look for patterns across models.”

• Use LC’s user-friendly primary source teacher’s guides and analysis tools to encourage thinking and questioning. There are reproducible forms for students and teachers guides with questions to get you started.

Finding Resources

Toss out preconceived ideas that LC is just for history and social studies. It only takes a quick look in the Science, Technology & Business section linked on the LC main webpage to see why. The Science, Technology & Business landing page is a convenient place to begin browsing and searching thousands of primary resources on familiar curriculum topics such as health and medicine, environment, earth and life science, transportation, and inventors and inventions. For example, The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers have approximately 5,000 items including more than 51,000 images. Included are “correspondence, scientific notebooks, journals, blueprints, articles, and photographs documenting Bell’s invention of the telephone and his involvement in the first telephone company, his family life, his interest in the education of the deaf, and his aeronautical and other scientific research.”

The Dream of Flight is an online exhibit with drawings and manuscripts ranging from to Wilbur and Orville Wright papers and photos to more contemporary material. A special online exhibit created in celebration of National Disability Awareness Month has interviews with disabled Americans, contemporary and historic.

The LC’s American Memory collections are eclectic and include considerable resources for science or health classrooms. Select the American Memory icon on LC’s homepage to view a general topic list of artifacts. Two topic categories (Technology, Industry and Environment, Conservation) are good starting points. The Environment, Conversation section includes thousands of primary sources about the evolution of the conservation movement and national parks. The Technology, Industry group includes resources related to
inventors, factories, and work and home life.

Don’t stop with these topics. Science and health-related primary sources appear in unexpected places throughout all American Memory collections. The Culture, Folklife group has quite a lot related to diseases. A science teacher looking for historic information about radiation took a unique approach to the topic by using Chautauqua flyers and historic sheet music along with “pro” government documents. Take time to browse and search by keyword or subject.

And while you’re at it, here are a couple of search tips for you: Use the Help button at the top of the page to learn more about searching, and read about each collection before searching.

Another resource, the World Digital Library, which sprang out of a partnership between the LC and UNESCO, has access to thousands of primary sources from throughout the world. Get started by browsing in three general topics: computer science, information and general works; science; and technology. This is the place to go for drawings, images, and text from ancient scientists. Thumbnails of artifacts make it easy to explore a wide range of treasures. Try a keyword search on topics such as astronomy to find images and documents similar to those cited in the LC’s Teachers page blog mentioned previously.

The Teachers’ page itself is the go-to place for teachers and media specialists who do not have time to search for the perfect resource. There are many science classroom-ready materials; two groups of classroom materials are helpful for “first timers”:

• Primary source sets are ready-to-use groups of photos and other artifacts. Sets for the science classroom include The Industrial Revolution in the United States and The Inventive Wright Brothers. Each set includes a teacher’s guide and historic background information.

• Lesson plans for the science teacher include Natural Disasters: Nature’s Fury; Explorations in American Environmental History; and Thomas Edison, Electricity, and America. The plans are complete with resources, standards alignment, and many teaching ideas. They are lengthy but can easily
be adapted.

If you want to learn more about the World Digital Library and the Teachers’ page, check out two of my earlier New Media Center columns cited in the reference list below.

The Smithsonian museums have an abundance of primary and secondary resources for health and science teachers and students. I began a search for information about epidemics and diseases expecting to find what I was looking for in science museums. I unexpectedly found wonderful teaching resources in the National Museum of American History.

The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden, one of the museum’s physical and virtual exhibits, has photos of inventions, technology, and patents associated with presidents. My favorite artifact is Alexander Graham Bell’s induction device used to locate the bullet that lodged in President Garfield when he was assassinated. It’s a fascinating story that could generate a discussion of inventions medical practices before X-rays. The American Presidency virtual exhibit has background information and primary sources. The exhibit has potential for developing interesting cross-curricular learning activities for middle-level students while introducing them to primary sources.

Two virtual exhibits from the National Museum of American History are well-suited for the health curriculum. Whatever Happened to Polio? is rich in historic documents and photos to help students learn about the disease. The interesting, engaging, and user-friendly exhibit encourages student inquiry and discussion. It is most appropriate for middle-level students.

Archiving the History of an Epidemic: HIV and AIDS, 1985–2009, is appropriate for the secondary health classroom. There are historic photos, interviews, magazine covers, public health pamphlets, and much, much more.

Earth science teachers will appreciate the National Museum of American History’s exhibit Cosmos in Miniature: The Remarkable Star Map of Simeon De Witt. The exhibit presents the oldest surviving Anglo-American star map, prepared by a surveyor for George Washington and the Continental army. There are many exceptionally clear drawings and photos.

Browse the National Museum of American History’s online exhibit tab for a full list of exhibits. There is a lot to explore. Of course you will also want to explore other Smithsonian museums individually or simultaneously. Begin at the Smithsonian’s homepage to explore them. A list of science and technology topics aids searching for a specific format such as teaching materials, online exhibits, or research across
all museums.

Wrapping Up

My personal search for information about fluoroscopes led me to unexpected places. Many media specialists are by now familiar with how to help teachers use primary sources from the LC collections in the history classroom. It takes a little branching out and searching to help science and health teachers discover interesting items in unexpected places. 


Contact Mary Alice at


Resources and References:


From the Library of Congress

Library of Congress (

World Digital Library (

American Memory Collections and Exhibits (

Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey (

Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century (

The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers (

American Life History: Manuscripts From Federal Writers Project, 1936–1940 (

The Dream of Flight (

National Disability Awareness Month (

Carney’s Series of Medical Charts Showing Location in the United States of Emerging or Reemerging Disease Threat Since 1990/DI Cartography Center (

Library of Congress’ Teachers’ page (

Library of Congress’ blog (

Primary Sources’ Teachers Guides and Analysis Tools (

From the Smithsonian and National Museum of American History

National Museum of American History (

Better Feet Through Radiation: The Era of the Fluoroscope (

The American Presidency (

Whatever Happened to Polio? (

Archiving the History of an Epidemic: HIV and AIDS, 1985–2009 (

Cosmos in Miniature: The Remarkable Star Map of Simeon De Witt (

From Other Sources

Shoe Store Fluoroscope, Eugene Fournier, YouTube. Uploaded March 22, 2012 (

The Otis Historical Archives at the National Museum of Science and Health (


My Earlier Columns

Anderson, Mary Alice, “The World Digital Library: Global Primary Sources Just a Click Away,” Internet@Schools, March/April 2013 (

Anderson, Mary Alice, “Classroom-Ready Materials on the Library of Congress Teachers Page,” Internet@Schools, September/October 2013 (


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