From Our Community to Yours, Happy Healthful Halloween!

Guest post by Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, Chief of the History of Medicine Division (HMD) at the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

I have always associated Halloween with community and health.

My family and I appreciate the holiday for the way it brings together our neighborhood of individuals and families with diverse backgrounds, creativity, and interests, all celebrating the occasion safely and meaningfully. Some of our neighbors don’t observe the holiday, and we certainly respect their choice by interacting with them in other ways that bring us together as neighbors. But for me, Halloween is very much about community, family, and friends, and the benefits of gathering supportively.

When I was growing up in Rochester, New York, I participated in the trick-or-treat program for the United Nations Children’s Fund, learning how the coins I collected from my neighbors could help vulnerable children. After I arrived home, I tallied the money before placing it in a special mailing envelope. I also sorted my candy while my parents simultaneously—and paradoxically—reminded me not to eat too much and asked me to set aside some for them to enjoy.

In the weeks following Halloween, certain pieces of my saved candy would disappear; my memory of this fact is tied to understanding now that whoever helped themselves was still enjoying the holiday well into Thanksgiving. Candy is still a big part of Halloween, but now parents have better access to information about candy labels and food safety tips to consider before they and their children indulge. It should come as no surprise that I now simultaneously—and paradoxically—remind my daughters not to eat too much and ask them to save pieces of candy for me to enjoy, right up to and sometimes even beyond Thanksgiving.

Every Halloween, I also looked forward to the annual television broadcast of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, based on the Peanuts comics by Charles M. Schulz. With its humor, interesting cast of young characters, melodious music, and vibrant colors, the whole special gave meaning to the day. It also made me think about parts of the story involving Snoopy dressing himself in a World War I flying ace costume and imagining scenes behind the Western Front. Something bigger was going on here. That something—Schulz channeling his experiences as a combat soldier as well as his pride as a World War II veteran—partly inspired my interest to study and publish on wartime humanitarianism and experiences of soldiers wounded in World War I.  

I’ll confess that I still enjoy It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I watch it every year with my younger daughter who has come to enjoy it also. It makes the holiday special for both of us. I hope our time together today around the program will be transcendent and inform her future memories of the holiday, indeed time well spent laughing, appreciating the humor, wondering about Snoopy’s interest in dressing up like a World War I flying ace, and how precisely he sat comfortably atop his doghouse-turned-Sopwith Camel airplane.

Like Snoopy and the gang, and as my talented NLM colleagues have shared through their expertise of our collections, many people enjoy occasions like Halloween when they can don creative costumes and masks, think about the lore around black cats and skeletons, and regale each other with stories of ghosts and other frightful subjects. The timeless vulnerability and mystery of the human body form the basis for many of these observations and stories. Apropos, therefore, is the NLM’s newly redesigned online exhibition Dream Anatomy, which draws on collections of our library, along with work of 20th- and 21st-century artists, to explore how what lies beneath our skin has scared, amazed, entertained, fascinated, and inspired us.  Ultimately, Dream Anatomy demonstrates how art and the artistic imagination have always been an essential part of the science of anatomy and the fun of Halloween.

I join with my NLM colleagues to wish you and your family a truly healthful Halloween, one complete with experiences of togetherness in your community, treasured memories of past holidays and the creation of new memories to treasure in the future, and inspired learning through NLM’s globally appreciated collections, trusted health information resources, and the exciting and updated Dream Anatomy online exhibition.

Dr. Reznick leads all aspects of HMD and has over two decades of leadership experience in federal, nonprofit, and academic spaces. As a cultural historian, he also maintains a diverse, interdisciplinary, and highly collaborative historical research portfolio supported by the library and based on its diverse collections and associated programs. Dr. Reznick is the author of three books and numerous book chapters and journal articles, including as co-author with Ken Koyle of History matters: in the past, present & future of the NLM, published in 2021 by the Journal of the Medical Library Association

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