Political Power in the History of American Public Health and Medicine

Solicited by the German Historical Institute Washington

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 8:45 AM - 10:15 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender and Sexuality; Science, Medicine, and Public Health; Urban and Suburban


The Covid-19 pandemic has put the history of American health and medicine back into focus. Public health and medical experts provided politicians and the public with assessments and strategies to respond to the crisis. Their contested role during the pandemic raises the question of how medical and public health expertise has evolved over time, and on what grounds such expertise has gained political traction or why it failed to do so. This panel brings together historians from Germany and North America to discuss recent work on how truth claims in medicine and in public health were developed, endorsed, or rejected by political and educational institutions in the U.S. from the late nineteenth century to the postwar period. By focusing on the imperialist implications of the Marine Hospital Service’s epidemiological surveillance of overseas ports, the racial and reproductive medical surveillance that white female physicians advocated in Colorado and Oregon, and the religious reframing of the secular field of psychology at evangelical colleges in postwar America, the presenters explore issues in public health and medicine that are significant in U.S. history at large.

Papers Presented

Imperialism, Knowledge, and Distrust: U.S. Public Health Surveillance in the Pacific Region around 1900

During the period of U.S. overseas expansion, imperial aspirations and concerns for public health went hand in hand. Colonial and quasi-colonial authorities in the newly acquired insular territories considered sanitary and public health efforts to be part of their self-imposed “civilizing mission.” Their highly invasive measures often provoked resistance among colonized groups. As means of justifying foreign rule, naturalizing racialized hierarchies, and exercising informal modes of influence beyond the formal reach of the American empire, medical knowledge and public health interventions became inextricably linked to efforts to support imperial interests and power. This paper focuses on specific yet critical forms of such interventions: the practices of monitoring epidemiological conditions in foreign port cities and inspecting vessels bound for American ports. Since the 1870s, the Marine Hospital Service had created a virtual system of “health intelligence” (Francis Fremantle) and stationed officers in so-called dangerous foreign ports to inspect ships, freight, and passengers prior to departure. These officers sought to prevent epidemic diseases from reaching the United States while trying to ensure smooth, unhampered mobility and economic exchanges within and beyond American imperial networks. With the example of sanitary surveillance in Asian ports around 1900, the paper analyzes how the medical knowledge about so-called Oriental diseases at that time, as well as the distrust of alleged disease carriers, shaped (often fruitless) efforts to prevent epidemic spread and, simultaneously, became a crucial component of American imperial presence in the Pacific region.

Presented By
Andrea Wiegeshoff, Philipps-Universität Marburg

Sex and the Eugenic City: Medical Women and Reproductive Surveillance in the Urban American West, 1900¬¬–1930

In 1925 Dr. Minnie Love, a state legislator and Denver-area physician, introduced a bill to legalize the sterilization of Colorado’s “idiots, epileptics, imbeciles, and insane persons.” An ardent eugenicist and Ku Klux Klan member, Dr. Love argued that disease and crime could be prevented by means of the sterilization of “unfit” populations. Love’s legislation ultimately failed, even though many fellow physicians and politicians supported her efforts. Twelve hundred miles northwest of Denver, Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair celebrated her successful campaign to pass a similar sterilization law in Oregon. Like Love, Owens-Adair believed that controlling reproduction could gradually eradicate degeneracy in the United States. Although the two sterilization campaigns had different outcomes, the medical politics of Drs. Love and Owens-Adair serve as dramatic spotlights on the role of white female physicians in shaping public health discourse and policy decisions surrounding race, sex, and reproduction in the early twentieth-century American West. This paper focuses on two cities, Denver and Portland, to explore how these women became politically influential actors in these regions. The rapid growth of western cities coincided with the rise of progressivism, maternalism, and early state suffrage laws. This simultaneity of events produced a unique environment for white female physicians to leverage their medical authority to create institutional and political systems of racial and reproductive medical surveillance throughout the urban American West.

Presented By
Jacqueline Antonovich, University of Michigan

Health Sciences at Evangelical Colleges since 1945

After WWII, ever more students in the U.S. began to attend evangelical colleges and universities. This increase was directly linked to the GI Bill, which made it possible for many conservative Protestant families to afford a college education. It seems important to understand the fields of study evangelical institutions of higher education offered in order to understand the emergence of an evangelical middle class that has been associated since the early postwar period with the rise of the Christian Right. Evangelical colleges offered a wide range of courses and degrees, but they were especially successful in the fields of economics and health sciences. While the link between specific schools of economics, conservative Christians, and the rise of a new Republican coalition has been studied extensively, evangelicals’ interest in the field of medicine and psychology has received less attention. This paper offers a fresh perspective on the establishment of health sciences at evangelical colleges. While it intends to give a short overview, it will put the accreditation of psychology front and center. Psychology appears to be an especially interesting subject at evangelical institutions for two reasons. First, traditionally conservative Christians understood psychology and Christianity as competing with each other. Second, the field of psychology experienced a boom in the second half of the twentieth century. The paper zooms in on how evangelical colleges adopted a “secular” discipline that had formerly been viewed critically by them and how they negotiated with the American Psychological Association (APA) about how to combine rather strict statements of faith with scientific standards.

Presented By
Stefanie Hermine Coché, Justus Liebig University Giessen, Germany

Session Participants

Chair: Axel Jansen, German Historical Institute Washington

Presenter: Jacqueline Antonovich, University of Michigan

Presenter: Stefanie Hermine Coché, Justus Liebig University Giessen, Germany

Commentator: Jessica Wang, University of British Columbia

Presenter: Andrea Wiegeshoff, Philipps-Universität Marburg