Why does a first-person account matter?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

Some of the most important works of history are first person, from accounts by Frederick Douglass and Marie Curie to Charles Darwin and Anne Frank. They tell stories from places we haven’t been, experienced war and joy and exploration and discovery in ways we hadn’t seen, firing our imaginations and building our understanding.

A Baltimore nurse has helped us with a first draft of contemporary history by explaining what it’s like working at the front—as a nurse at a place fighting to save lives during a worldwide pandemic. Both Rosem Morton (above) and her husband are nurses at different hospitals; they’re both doing their best to help, including agreeing to extra shifts. Over eight days of work at the front, Morton chronicles how the battle for proper protection becomes increasingly important—and heated—as work rules change and the frighteningly infectious COVID-19 makes its presence known.

The pace of the work is frantic. "Something is brewing," she writes at one point, "but I don’t have time to investigate."

The account by Morton, also a photographer and a National Geographic Explorer grantee, stands along recent first-person essays from the front, including this urgent dispatch by a young ER doc in a Queens hospital hard-hit by the rising number of COVID-19 cases. “Here, the curve is not flat. We are overwhelmed,” writes Fred Milgrim, also describing a life-and-death fight for protective gear. “There was a time for testing in New York, and we missed it.”

These detailed essays are clearly, as is often said about journalism, first drafts of history. As we press forward in these tragic days, they will remain luminous to scholars.

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Instagram photo of the day

Discovery: This complex rock art panel on the San Rafael Swell, in Utah, has engravings that span thousands of years—from the archaic era to modern times. The site sits on a conspicuous rock overlooking the junction of a major creek with its tributary. “The images are incredible,” says photographer Stephen Alvarez, who has started a nonprofit to digitally preserve and share sites like this. The timing is urgent: Even in this rock art panel, there is considerable evidence of vandalism, as someone tried to take some of the engravings off the rock wall with a chisel.

Read: Stephen Alvarez and humanity’s oldest stories, told in the first person

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Today in a minute

Coronavirus update: A 4-year-old Malaysian tiger at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for COVID-19, Nat Geo's Natasha Daly reports. “It’s the first time, to our knowledge, that a [wild] animal has gotten sick from COVID-19 from a person,” says Paul Calle, chief veterinarian for the Bronx Zoo. The tiger contracted the coronavirus from an infected—but unknown—asymptomatic zookeeper.

‘Forgotten’ Nazi camp
: It was on British soil, in the Channel Islands between France and Britain, seized by Germany in World War II. Hundreds of men suffered and died in the Nazi concentration camp known as Sylt, hard against rugged cliffs facing the English Channel. A decade-long forensic investigation has uncovered a chapter of the war in these islands that many would prefer to forget, writes Megan Gannon for Nat Geo.

A shining light, overshadowed: A trailblazing aviator, best-selling author, and environmentalist, Anne Morrow Lindbergh spent much of her life in the shadow of her husband, problematic American hero Charles Lindbergh. Yet Anne Lindbergh, who in 1930 was the first woman in America to earn a first-class glider pilot’s license, had a host of jaw-dropping accomplishments. Anne Lindbergh outlived her husband by 22 years—and regained fame on her own in later life, Nat Geo’s Nina Stochlic writes in this subscriber exclusive.

In Tombstone news: Why is it that a 138-year-old gunfight that took less than a minute, that killed three people, has taken such an enduring spot in American lore? As Western fans know, Wyatt Earp, his two brothers, and his friend Doc Holliday got the upper hand in the shootout behind the Old Kindersley horse corral in the silver-mining Arizona town of Tombstone. But the blowback cost the Earps dearly, Fernando Martin writes for Nat Geo’s History magazine. Subscribers can read more here.

Move over Genghis Khan: The Mongol leader Kublai Khan did what his legendary grandfather, the fearsome warrior Genghis Khan, could not: Conquer China. To do so, he balanced and respected Mongol and Chinese traditions. “Kublai knew that subduing China was one thing, but ruling it would be another,’’ writes Veronica Walker for Nat Geo’s History magazine. Subscribers can read the story here.

The big takeaway

A softer, cuddlier history: The most common items often have an uncommonly interesting backstory. Humble toilet paper, for example. This year’s rush on the rolls is not the first time, writes Erin Blakemore for Nat Geo. First mass produced in the United States in 1857, toilet paper has had a myriad of alternatives, past and present, Blakemore reports, While we’re, um, on the topic, one writer argues that this year’s shortages should NOT be blamed solely on mindless consumer hoarding. Half of America’s market is for a different product with different mills—huge toilet paper rolls with thinner, smaller sheets for commercial and school use. The “shortage” is party because the makers of the flagging commerical market (who’s in school or at the office these days?) can’t retrofit rapidly to serve the consumer market, where legitimate demand is greater, writes Will Oremus for Marker.

In a few words

Related: 'Whether or not we belong,' says Edwidge Danticat, 'is not defined by us'

Overheard at Nat Geo

Nat Geo readers worldwide have been emailing about their life under self-quarantine. From a farm in mid Wales, Ruth Rees says she's busy during "lambing" season, spending nearly all the daily hours with the animals. Members of the family are classified as key workers during the coronavirus shutdown. Here's Ruth's pic of her youngest. ... In Lake County, California, reader Denise Patterson, with time on her hands, has set up a "game camera" outside her home each night to observe the unquarantined wildlife. Well, lookee who stopped by? That's one curious raccoon. We've tweeted out a few more reader mini-stories here.

Did a friend forward this to you?

On Tuesday, George Stone covers travel. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Victoria Jaggard on science, Rachael Bale on animal news, and Whitney Johnson on photography.

The last glimpse

A time for prayer: How has life changed for the world’s top photographers now that they are grounded at home (as is much of the world), hoping to stave off the deadly coronavirus? For Gulshan Khan, it means more time to share prayer. "Zubair, my partner, finishes the first part of the Asr prayer," says Khan. "It has been a while since we prayed together. We’ve lived such hurried lives."

Read: Intimate photos show families adapting to a world changed by COVID-19

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Eslah Attar selected the photos. By the way, thanks to all of you who sent in notes from your self-quarantine last week. Have an idea or a link for us? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Stay safe and healthy.

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