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World War I and State Publications: Health

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Infographic on mortality rates from the October 1918 issue of Health Bulletin

This infographic compares the number of infant deaths with other causes, including North Carolinian casualties in France during WWI. (North Carolina’s Health Bulletin, October 1918 p.81).

Today’s post is the last in a series that highlights references to World War I in selected state publications in our digital collections. Public health is one of the most represented topics in the collections, given the historically strong tie between American government and providing health care and resources for all citizens. At the beginning of the 20th century, hypotheses about the spread of disease, the tie between infection and microorganisms, and the role of local health care were burgeoning and broiling around the country. The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-9 was a devastating catalyst for public health reform (pdf) and advancement.

In North Carolina, the 1890s through 1920s brought a cascade of public health change beginning with an 1893 law passed by the General Assembly that strengthened the regulation and advisory role of the State Board of Health. The Board provided guidelines for sanitation, increased health care facilities around the state, and brought public health education to the general population.

During World War I, the Board used its Health Bulletin to educate North Carolinians. (I cannot emphasize enough how the cartoons and short articles in the Bulletin provide really interesting glimpses into North Carolina’s health history. We have 1886-1973 in our digital collections. See the flickr gallery at the end of this article for items from 1917-1919.) Personal wellness was tied to war efficiency, with the extended implication that it was unpatriotic to be unhealthy. Being “weak” and shirking activity were decried.

Now, if ever, in war times, every North Carolinian should be at his maximum efficiency, free from all preventable physical handicaps, and in the best physical condition, ready to do a man’s full part in waging this world war to a speedy, successful conclusion. To win this war we must conserve our health, vigor and efficiency; we must do health work, both personal and public, as never before. (July 1917, p. 1)

An editorial by Herbert Hoover, then U.S. Food Administrator, in the November 1917 issue asks readers to EAT LESS AND LIVE LONGER— SAVE FOOD AND WIN THIS WAR. Saving rare goods like sugar and fats and taking advantage of locally produced vegetables, as well as cleaning your plate and wasting less, are among his suggestions.

Full garbage pails in America mean empty dinner pails in America and Europe.

The War was even used as an open door to discuss sex education with your children. From the September 1918 editorial:

But the world moves, things and conditions change, and war accentuates changes. And so conditions arising out of the war or, more truly speaking, revealed by the war, demand that the long maintained silence on the sex problem be broken; that the light of knowledge, through plain and, let us hope and we believe, inoffensive words, be permitted to dispel the miasma of ignorance.

While the article on “sex hygiene and character” on page 64 of the September issue is a far cry from the type of vetted medical advice we’d receive today, the fact that the subject was even broached in such detail was surprising to me.

What is also surprising is the in-your-face nature of the editorials.

In such a gigantic struggle as we now face, every weakling and every sick and inefficient person in our land who is not more than taking care of himself, is just that much dead weight.

This from the December 1917 issue, which asks all (well, specifically, men) to operate at 100% efficiency. Instead of holiday wishes readers are asked to prove their “worth” to Uncle Sam. I can’t imagine such rhetoric being well received today. Regardless, it’s definitely different.

Thanks for joining me during this series on World War I. Drop us a comment if you enjoy these thematic looks at state publications, and (even better) if you have a theme you’d like to see explored in future posts.

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