THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARCH 28, 1979

Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident Occurs

three-mile-island-nuclear-accidentThree Mile Island, the site of the worst civilian nuclear power program accident in the United States, is located in the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In the early 1970s, Metropolitan Edison built two reactors on Three Mile Island for commercial energy production. On March 28, 1979, a faulty valve allowed water coolant to escape from Metropolitan Edison’s second reactor, Unit 2, during an unplanned shutdown. A cascade of human errors and technological mishaps resulted in an overheated reactor core with temperatures as high as 4,300 degrees and the accidental release of radiation into the atmosphere. Plant operators struggled to resolve the situation. Press reporters highlighted the confusion surrounding the accident, while Governor Richard L. Thornburgh of Pennsylvania and President Jimmy Carter visited the stricken plant, urging the nation to remain calm. On March 30, state officials evacuated pregnant women and preschool children from the immediate area as a safety measure. On April 2, temperatures decreased inside the Unit 2 reactor, and government officials declared the crisis over on April 9.

A commission authorized by President Carter investigated the calamity. Government analysts calculated that, at the height of the crisis, Unit 2 was within approximately one hour of a meltdown and a significant breach of containment. The lessons learned at Three Mile Island led to improved safety protocols and equipment overhauls at commercial reactors across the country. Three Mile Island also contributed to rising public anxiety over the safety of nuclear energy, anxieties fueled by the coincidental release of The China Syndrome, a fictional movie about the cover-up of a nuclear plant accident, just twelve days before the disaster at Three Mile Island. The Three Mile Island accident became a rallying cry for grassroots antinuclear activists. Wary of sizable cost overruns and public resistance, electrical utilities shied from constructing new nuclear plants in the years that followed. Over an eleven-year period, the cleanup of Three Mile Island’s severely damaged reactor cost in excess of $1 billion.

Guth, Robert M., and John Wills. “Three Mile Island.” Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 8. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. 122. U.S. History in Context. Web.

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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARCH 17, 1941

The National Gallery of Art Opens

national-gallery-of-artThe National Gallery of Art was conceived and given to the people of the United States by Andrew W. Mellon (1855–1937). Mellon was a financier and art collector from Pittsburgh who came to Washington in 1921 to serve as secretary of the treasury. During his years of public service he came to believe that the United States should have a national art museum equal to those of other great nations.

In 1936 Mellon wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt offering to donate his superb art collection for a new museum and to use his own funds to construct a building for its use. With the president’s support, Congress accepted Mellon’s gift, which included a sizable endowment, and established the National Gallery of Art in March 1937. Construction began that year at a site on the National Mall along Constitution Avenue between Fourth and Seventh Street NW, near the foot of Capitol Hill.

Andrew Mellon selected American architect John Russell Pope (1874–1937) to design the building for the new museum. This edifice, now known as the West Building, has formal public entrances on all four sides. Its main floor plan is centered on a rotunda that was modeled after the ancient Roman Pantheon. To the east and west of the Rotunda, barrel-vaulted sculpture halls lead to garden courts, where greenery and fountains provide a restful haven for visitors. Interconnected exhibition galleries extend to the north and south of these large public spaces in such a way that, in principle, a visitor can begin in one room and proceed through the collection without backtracking.

The West Building was designed in a classicizing style but built using the most modern technology of the time. Its exterior was constructed of pale pink Tennessee marble, while its foundations and first floor were formed of concrete with a steel framework. Polished limestone from Indiana and Alabama covers the walls on its main floor, and the Rotunda columns were fabricated in Vermont from Italian marble. The architect recognized the importance of natural light to illuminate and unite the exhibition spaces. To achieve this, he specified that skylights should cover virtually the entire three-acre roof.

Because Mellon believed that visitors should learn from as well as enjoy the art in the collection, works are exhibited by period and national origin in appropriately decorated galleries. The Italian Renaissance galleries, for instance, have Italian travertine wainscot and hand-finished plaster walls and are detailed with base and door surround moldings and include built-in niches to display sculpture, while Dutch 17th-century galleries are finished with wood paneling to evoke original settings.

Andrew Mellon and John Russell Pope died within 24 hours of each other in August 1937, not long after excavation for the West Building’s foundations had begun, but the museum was built in accordance with their concepts. Construction was completed by December 1940, and works of art were installed in the new galleries over the following months. The National Gallery of Art was dedicated on March 17, 1941, with Paul Mellon presenting the museum on behalf of his father, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepting the gift for the nation.


Learn more about the National Gallery of Art »

THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARCH 11, 1918

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 Begins

influenza-oandemic-1918By far the most deadly outbreak of disease in human history was the flu pandemic that began in 1918, as World War I was reaching its conclusion. It was a true pandemic, spreading rapidly across the world. Although the outbreak lasted approximately two years, as many as two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a six-month period (roughly September 1918 to February 1919). By any measure, this was the most lethal single disease outbreak in human history. Because of the general chaos attending a world war, the task of reliably determining how many actually died has been difficult, though it was undoubtedly in the tens of millions.

Although experts do not fully agree on this point, the most likely origin of this outbreak was somewhere in the United States, having spread from bird populations to swine to humans. In February 1918, soon after its appearance, the flu was apparently brought to Camp Funston, a military base at Fort Riley, Kansas, by conscripted civilians. At the camp, the huge population of potential carriers and victims allowed the virus to spread rapidly. Within three weeks, more than 1,000 men were hospitalized, sick with the flu.

As World War I raged on, the virus spread easily via troop transport ships. When it hit Spain in May 1918, it was erroneously called Spanish flu, a name that is still used despite current knowledge that it did not originate there. Apparently, the lack of wartime censor- ship permitted more widespread reporting of the outbreak in Spain — a noncombatant in World War I — thus giving the impression that the flu was at its worst there.

In early September, the pandemic returned to the United States, again via troop transports, striking Camp Devens outside Boston. This second outbreak was not like the one of the previous spring, however, as the virus had mutated into a much deadlier form dur- ing the intervening months. The flu rolled across the United States, from east to west, leaving devastation in its wake. In a normal influenza outbreak, 10 percent or less of deaths occur among those age 16 to 40. In the 1918 pandemic, by contrast, as many as half of those who died were in their twenties and thirties. The flu was also dangerous for children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Nearly half of all deaths in the United States in 1918 are attributed to influenza.

The worst of the fatal cases were truly horrific. The onset of illness was sudden and often completely unexpected. The victim could expect not just the usual mild fever and aches associated with flu, but extreme fever and chills and excruciating pain. His or her lips and skin might turn blue or nearly black. Some would experience hemorrhaging from the nose or mouth, or even the ears or eyes, losing vast quantities of blood. For better or worse, such suffering was often relatively brief. It was not unusual for a seemingly healthy person to become ill and succumb within a day or two.

Although the flu spread worldwide, it was experienced differently in different countries. It was actually made up of several waves of the virus, which continued around the world well into 1919, with sporadic flare-ups in 1920. Regions that escaped earlier waves could be hit hard by later ones. Australia, for example, had avoided the earlier outbreak but felt the full force of the pandemic in early 1919.

Although experts have only rough estimates of the death toll from the pandemic, the figures that are availableindicate its terrible im- pact. In Paris, 10 percent of those who contracted the flu died; for those who also developed complications such as pneumonia, the mortality rate jumped to 50 percent. The United States had a death toll of approximately 675,000 (by contrast, about 118,000 Ameri- cans were killed in World War I, and about 418,000 were killed in World War II — a total of 536,000 deaths). In some regions, the figures were particularly ghastly.

Alaska and Samoa lost one-quarter of their population, and in the northern Canadian region of Labrador, one-third or more of the population died. In Iran, one nomadic tribe lost nearly one-third of its members to the disease.

Some estimates put the global death toll from the 1918 pandemic at 20 million, but others estimate the death toll in India alone at 21 million. Most who study the 1918 pandemic now agree that the total death toll was likely at least 50 million, perhaps as high as 100 million. Nothing else in human history — not plague, the Holocaust, atomic weapons, or any other form of warfare — has killed as many people in as short a time.

Turner, Julie. “Influenza.” Global Social Issues: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Christopher G. Bates and James Ciment. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2013. 591-596. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.


Read a first hand account of an army doctor at Fort Devens »

THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARCH 3 ,1931

The Star Spangled Banner Becomes Our National Anthem

star-spangled-banner-francis-scott-keyThough a celebrated part of American culture today, “The Star Spangled Banner” has not always been America’s national anthem. In fact, some people might argue that the song wasn’t always American. How did Francis Scott Key’s poetic tribute to the defense of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 come to be one of the most revered and recognizable songs in America, gaining legal status as the official song of the United States?

When Key, a slaveholder, lawyer, and sometime poet, penned the “Star Spangled Banner,” he wanted to give words to his emotions after witnessing the 1814 defense of Baltimore from British invasion. Just after dawn, Key looked to see whether the British or the Americans had taken the day. What he saw stirred him — a huge American flag, the “star spangled banner,” still flying at the fort. On the back of a letter Key immediately began composing his lyrics to the tune of an old English drinking song. Within days, the song became a handbill. Then, a Baltimore newspaper printed it, followed by newspapers around the country. By the 1890s, the Army and Navy had adopted the “Star Spangled Banner” as their official song, and in the midst of World War I President Woodrow Wilson ordered it played on all official occasions.

By the end of World War I, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other patriotic and civic groups began lobbying Congress to make “The Star Spangled Banner” America’s official song, but some Americans opposed it because the music was English in origin and the range of notes made it difficult to sing. Prohibitionists pointed out that the song was based on a drinking song, which they felt was inappropriate for a dry country’s anthem. Still others rejected its archaic wording, and Peace Movement activists deplored the song’s martial spirit. Teachers complained that it did not do enough to teach young Americans how to be good citizens in peacetime as well as in war. Several groups suggested Katharine Lee Bates’s “America the Beautiful” as an alternative. But, on March 3, 1931, after twenty years of wrangling and the introduction of some forty bills and joint resolutions in Congress, President Herbert Hoover signed the bill making “The Star Spangled Banner” the official anthem of the United States.

When it was written, “The Star Spangled Banner” reflected the patriotic mood of the new republic and helped make the flag a venerated symbol of America. Today, it still holds special meaning for Americans. Its familiar choruses inspire American pride and optimism. Some opposition to the anthem still exists among those who favor other songs, but the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, rekindled the anthem’s popularity.

Pash, Melinda L. “National Anthem.” Americans at War. Ed. John P. Resch. Vol. 3: 1901-1945. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 129-130. U.S. History in Context. Web.