Wednesday July 6th 2022

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Tales from Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery

190th in a series

For Want of Breath and Blood


“For want of breath and blood.” With those words Dr. John Cockburn, the city”™s Health Officer, painted a heartbreaking picture of the death of a fragile infant born in 19th century Minneapolis. He wrote those words on the burial permit for Baby Girl Weeks who died on April 3, 1883. She was only two days old. She was not the first of her father”™s children to die. John Warren Weeks and his first wife, Martha, had lost three children. Martha died in childbirth in 1877. John”™s second wife, Elizabeth, was the mother of the unnamed baby girl who died in 1883. John Weeks died from consumption (tuberculosis) five months after his infant daughter died. He was only 39 years old and had outlived four of his children.

The marker for six members of the Weeks family-
-John and Martha Weeks and four infants. Photo by Tim McCall

Before the late 19th and early 20th centuries, infant and childhood deaths were so common that families had no expectation that all of the children would survive to adulthood. Approximately 100 out of every 1,000 babies did not live until their first birthday. (Infant mortality refers to children who died before their first birthdays and child mortality refers to children who died between the ages of one and five). The more than 10,000 children who are buried in the cemetery who died before their tenth birthdays died at a time when the causes of childhood illnesses were poorly understood and when treatments and preventive measures did not yet exist. Doctors had no answers or explanations to offer their parents, and there was nothing to be done to save their children.

Advances in medical and scientific knowledge during the late 1800s began to provide answers about the causes of some childhood diseases. In some cases that led to treatments, but preventing children from getting sick in the first place played an even larger role in keeping them safe. That knowledge, “a unified human accomplishment,” resulted in a dramatic decline in infant and childhood mortality rates. Dr. Perri Klass, author of A Good Time to Be Born: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future, described that decline as perhaps “our greatest human accomplishment.”

But it was more than just scientific breakthroughs that made it possible for so many more children to live. It required a shift in thinking about the role and responsibility that government had to protect the health of its citizens””especially its most vulnerable members. Public health initiatives were a critical part of the process. Improved sanitation, a shift to municipal water supplies, the creation of the Food and Drug Administration in 1907, visiting home nurse programs, and countless programs designed to improve infant health care were all essential parts of the effort.

Today infant mortality rates are seen as one indicator of a society”™s health and well-being. The United States”™ infant mortality rate in 2017 was 5.6 deaths for every 1,000 live births. While that is tiny in comparison to earlier rates, it is still too high and, not surprisingly, has a disproportionate impact on low-income families and on communities of color. Worldwide the lowest rates are in countries like Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden where rates hover around 2 deaths for every 1,000 live births.

Many of the issues that politicians are debating and that we hear about on the news””mandates about masks and vaccinations, and how much money we should spend on repairing or improving the country”™s infrastructure””are part of the debate that began more than 125 years ago. The difference is that we now have evidence that government programs and regulations do save lives. There is little doubt that the majority of the 10,000 children buried in the cemetery would, if they had been born today, have lived to adulthood.

The six members of the Weeks family””parents and four children– are buried in Lot 31, Block K.

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