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Using Primary Sources to Show the Shifting Understanding and Public View of Cancer

Lesson Overview


This lesson is designed for high school level biology students. This lesson focuses on cancer research. After discussing cell division and normal mitotic divisions in the body, we will discuss what cancer really is and the abnormalities in the normal mitotic steps that can cause cancerous cells. We will be using primary sources, including old newspaper articles, awareness posters, and magazine covers that show past ideas, strategies, research, and treatments that were used and how research strategies and treatments for cancer changed over the past century with the discovery of new info.

Grade Range:



After completing this activity student swill be able to:

  • Explain what cancer cells are and the biological causes of cancer. 

  • Describe how cancer has been viewed by the public in America over the last    century.

  • Identify and explain past research strategies and treatments and how research strategies and treatments have evolved in the last century.

  • Analyze old newspaper articles, awareness posters, and magazine covers to get an understanding of the history behind cancer research and the portrayal conveyed by these items. 

Time Required:

Two class periods of 50 minutes




Advertising, Culture and Folk Life, Government and Law, Technology and Industry, Women's History


Progressive Era to New Era, 1900-1929; Great Depression/World War II, 1929-1945; Postwar United States, 1945-1968


Illinois Learning Standards:


12.A.5a - Explain changes within cells and organisms in response to stimuli and
             changing environmental conditions (e.g., homeostasis, dormancy).

12.A.4b - Describe the structures and organizations of cells and tissues that
              underlie basic life functions including nutrition, respiration, cellular
              transport, biosynthesis and reproduction.

13.A.4c - Describe how scientific knowledge, explanations and technological
             designs may change with new information over time (e.g., the
             understanding of DNA, the design of computers).



Analysis Tools:

 Poster Analysis and Written Document Analysis

PowerPoint Slides

 Available on PDF

Library of Congress Items:

Title of Source: Don't fear cancer fight it!


Title of Source: Cancer kills in the prime of life 95 percent of cases of cancer are in those over 35


Title of Source: Don't fight cancer alone. Ask these agencies for advice.


Title of Source: X-Ray, radium, surgery - the three recognized treatments for cancer. Consult your doctor or health bureau.


Title of Source: Beware the cancer quack. A reputable physician does not promise a cure, demand advance payment, advertise.


Title of Source: More women die of cancer than do men 70 percent of the 35,000 women who die annually of cancer of the breast and uterus could be saved if
treated in time.


Title of Source: Early is the watchword for cancer control. Early diagnosis, early treatment will save many lives. Early cancer can be cured.


Title of Source: The Mt. Sterling advocate., December 08, 1921, image 4


Title of Source: The Salt Lake herald-Republican., September 11, 1910, Section Three, Page 14, Image 35

Online Resources:

Title of Source: Clues to a Deadly Riddle (Google Books) Life Magazine


 Title of Source: CancerQuest




On day one of the lesson we will discuss the normal processes of cell division and the controls for the process built into our cells. We will discuss how these controls can get damaged through DNA mutation causing uncontrolled cell growth which is cancer. We will also discuss how cancerous cells can spread through metastasis. (PowerPoint available on PDF)


The second day of the lesson we will then take a step back and ask if we always knew what caused cancer and ask the students to think about how their grandparents and great grandparents may have felt about cancer when they were the student's age. (PowerPoint available on PDF)


Next, we will view a timeline of major events in cancer research and the treatments on the CancerQuest website and discuss the major findings in cancer research. (PowerPoint available on PDF)


Next, I will show a series of old newspaper articles from the early 1900s on the SmartBoard that discuss the understanding of cancer, the possible causes of cancer, the treatments of cancer, and the public view of cancer at the time. We will pick one of these newspaper articles and analyze it using the Written Document analysis form. (Newspaper articles available above in LOC Items)


Next, I will show a series of old awareness/warning posters from the early 1930s and 1940s that describe warning signs of cancer and what people should do to "fight" cancer. The students will work in groups to use the analysis tools to go in depth to find underlying themes and strategies built into these  posters. (American Society for the Control of Cancer). We will also discuss a Life Magazine cover and article from 1962 describing how cancer might be "infectious". (Posters available above in LOC Items)


Next, we will discuss how doctors treated cancer in this time period and how these treatments were developed. We will discuss a poster showing the three acceptable treatments for cancer at the time and the "Quackery" of other treatments. (Posters available above in LOC Items, PowerPoint available in PDF


Video clip over the race for the cure for cancer in the 1940s and 1950s from a video about the life of Henrietta Lacks (The Way of all Flesh) documentary. (Available in PowerPoint in PDF)


Day Three: Discuss and review the advertisements and articles from day one. Discuss how the views of cancer and cancer research have changed over time. Lead into more about the current cancer research and causes of cancer. (PowerPoint available in PDF)



I will evaluate student learning by asking critical thinking questions throughout the lesson an discussion to check for understanding. I will also evaluate the students by discussing with them and collecting and grading their analysis tools to ensure their understanding of the poster and newspaper articles. The students will later take a quiz over the material to assess the understanding. 


Students can learn more about Henrietta Lacks and the development of the HeLa cell line by researching her story on the web. Her harvested cancer cells have been growing since 1951 and have the basis for a plethora of great discoveries in the cellular world. This related directly to the objectives of learning how cancer cells are mutated and how they do not follow the normal cell cycle pattern. 

Author Credits

J. Bertetto
Sullivan High School