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Children receiving diphtheria immunization, New York City, 1920s (Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.)
While the mid-20th century is often described as a golden age of scientific advancement and medical breakthroughs, the groundwork was laid in the decades preceding. In the 1920s, both professional medical institutions and the federal government widened their impact by fostering a greater focus on public health and preventive medicine. As a result, the decade stimulated new medical discoveries and a growing confidence among the public that science, technology, and especially, medicine, were fields that could conquer and control modern problems. Alexandra Lord, chair and curator of the division of medicine and science at the American History Museum, explores the medical and public health advances of the ’20s and places them in a cultural context.
In the previous decade, World War I shaped new discoveries in medicine, and examinations of drafted soldiers revealed that the men defending our country were not as strong and healthy as once perceived. As a result, public health became a matter of national security.
With the postwar population shift from rural areas to urban centers, improved health and sanitation for both types of communities became a concern. Poorer, less populated parts of the country were often in desperate need of health and hygiene essentials, including indoor plumbing and running water. Cities were experiencing public health problems due to overcrowding, prompting initiatives and policies to reduce infant and childhood mortality, as well as to control infectious diseases.
The new freedoms offered by urban life also lead to a shift in social behaviors, and in response, the U.S. Public Health Service launched the first national sexual education campaign, now the longest-running one of its kind in the country.
The 1920s also saw a push for the professionalization of doctors and nurses, an increase in the number of school nurses, and breakthroughs in treating diseases, like diabetes, that once were considered a death sentence—and was the decade in which a new, hopeful trust in medicine placed its practitioners in high public regard.
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