medical history

Fighting Disease, Fighting Fascism: The Communist Party of the USA and its health journal, Health and Hygiene (pt. 1)

This is a series of blog posts on the CPUSA’s journal Health and Hygiene that I am looking to turn into an article in the near future. I originally planned to write one blog post on this journal, but there was so much material that there will be four posts over the week or so. These are new areas of research for me, so any feedback is most welcome!

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The first issue of ‘Health and Hygiene’

In 1937, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA), William Z. Foster, wrote in the party’s monthly journal, The Communist about the threat to the health of the American working class in the mid-1930s:

the health of the people is systematically undermined by low wages, slum housing, unsanitary and dangerous working conditions, lack of social security, adulterated food and drugs, inadequate and costly curative treatments, faulty educational systems, etc., all of which are very profitable to various capitalist interests but fatal to the workers. Capitalism not only robs the producing masses of the wealth they create, but destroys their health and very lives in the process.

From this position, in the mid-to-late 1930s, the Daily Worker Medical Advisory Board, a group of medical practitioners associated with the CPUSA, established a journal titled Health and Hygiene. Beginning in April 1935, the journal was to promote ‘good health at home and on the job’ for the American working class, and provide information on a wide variety of health and medical issues. The journal was published monthly until November 1938, essentially covering the initial Popular Front period. According a November 1935 issue, it had 20,000 readers.

Published at a time when there was a particular concern about the health of the working class in the United States and when public health debates were still dominated by ideas of eugenics and social Darwinism, Health and Hygiene sought to counter these ideas and promote greater socialist measures to combat the medical and material problems facing the working class. The journal campaigned strongly for eliminating poverty and poor living conditions for workers and their families, as well as highlighting the health problems in unsafe workplaces.

A breakdown of the topics covered by the journal over its four-year existence shows it dealt with a wide variety of topics. The journal was especially interested with health concerns for industrial workers and the broader working class, such as health problems in the workplace, as well as diseases that afflicted the lower classes in the United States. It also dedicated significant space to running pieces on health and medical education that was absent in other popular press at the time, including sex education and consumer information about fraudulent medicines and health advice.

Top 20 topics covered in Health and Hygiene journal

Category Number of times featured
Fraudulent medicine/health advice 29
Industrial workers health problems 23
Diet/Vegetarianism 23
Babies and child health 19
Sex/Masturbation 18
Beauty/Make Up/Cosmetics 18
Dentistry 13
Syphilis/Venereal Disease 12
Blood/Anaemia 9
Pregnancy/childbirth 9
USSR health 8
TB/Pleurisy 8
Medicine/vaccines 8
Constipation/diarrhoea 7
Scientist profiles 7
Feet 7
War 6
Poverty/Housing 6
Health insurance 5
Cold/Flu 5
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Advertisement warning false medical advertising

Fraudulent medicine and health advice

The most frequent topic of discussion in the journal was related to exposing fraudulent medicines and health advice. The debut editorial stated that the working class was at risk of being defrauded in this way ‘[b]ecause of their limited income and because of the pressing nature of their health problems’. The editorial added that this meant taking advice from advertisements ‘rather than that of a competent physician or dentist’ and thus, ‘workers fall prey to all sorts of medical fads and faddists’. The journal claimed, ‘We will expose such fakes and frauds wherever we find them’.

This certainly seemed to be the case. In one issue from October 1935, chiropractic was a described as ‘a symptom of the economic and social system under which we live’, claiming ‘Found by a mystic and supernaturalist, it was quickly exploited for the profit it would bring’. In an article from the following month, it wrote:

Osteopathy as an explanation or treatment for human ailments is doomed. Future society will regard it as an understandable outcrop from the roots of an economy where profit could inspire a teaching that had no basis in science and reason.

The editors of Health and Hygiene saw this a service that they could provide to build solidarity between health practitioners and the working class against those who profited from the peddling of fraudulent medicines and treatment. They proposed that there was ‘no essential conflict between the true interest of the doctor and the interest of the patient’, who both benefitted from the exposure of false treatments.

Reflecting the politics of the period, the journal claimed that Nazi Germany was one country ‘where anti-scientific cults and all so-called “natural” methods are flourishing’, criticising the ‘naturopathy’ and ‘racial science’ of the Nazi regime. In contrast, the journal claimed that in the Soviet Union – ‘where the profit system has been abolished’ – all fraudulent treatments ‘that prey on people’s health for profit’ had also disappeared. ‘In the Soviet Union’, the editorial asserted, ‘there is no Chiropractic, Osteopathy, Christian Science, or patient medicine industry’.

As well as fraudulent treatments, the journal also warned about the dangers of taking many over-the-counter medicines, which could contribute to a money-making exercise by drug companies and/or lead to harm through self-medication. Arthur Kallet, co-author of the book 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics, wrote that there were several results from self-medication and relying on over-the-counter medications – that these drugs would not work and were merely placebos, that self-medication could delay diagnoses (and thus proper treatment) of serious illnesses, and that these drugs could lead to injury and death to those who took them, as well as addiction. Kallet warned:

When drugs are taken on the advice of an advertiser, or a neighbour, or simply because they happen to be in the medicine-chest, their usefulness approaches the zero point; and their hazards, present even when drugs are prescribed by physicians, become serious.

Kallet also cautioned readers about the potential addictiveness of certain medications and this was a theme returned to on other occasions by the journal. There were relatively few articles in the journal dedication to the legal addictions of alcohol and smoking, but there was no also little mention of illegal drug consumption, such as heroin or cocaine, or addiction to heavy-duty painkillers, such as morphine, which was commonplace in the inter-war period. One issue in December 1936 raised the issue of addiction to Bromo-Seltzer, a painkiller and tranquiliser that was popularly used for headaches. The journal warned that Bromo-Seltzer was ‘being used as a substitute for morphine, opium, and other drugs by narcotic addicts’ before stating ‘its users become as much a slave to it as narcotic addicts do to cocaine or morphine.’

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From an article in 1937 on industrial poisonings

Health problems in the workplace

One of the primary goals of the journal and of the Daily Worker Medical Advisory Board was to campaign for improvements to workers’ health in the workplace. Despite improvements in the early 1900s, the industrial workplace in the United States was still a very dangerous place. In the debut editorial, the journal announced that it would ‘take the initiative in organizing campaigns for certain public health measures’, including attempting to ‘be a leader in the fight for a change of the conditions which render workers susceptible to illness.’

This was a constant feature throughout the publication run of the journal. The first issue in April 1935 ran a leading article on silicosis and lung disease, campaigning for enforcement of laws pertaining to the removal of silica dust. From there, the journal also highlighted the dangers of benzol poisoning, tuberculosis, lead poisoning in the automobile industry, radium poisoning amongst watchmakers, accidents in the steel industry and poisoning in the rubber mills (amongst others).

The journal put forward two solutions to these problems. Firstly the journal argued for stronger legislation dealing with workplace health and safety, as well as the enforcement of these laws. Capitalists and politicians were seen as a hindrance to this, with the journal stating:

Lobbyists for industrial insurance companies and the employers are paid huge sums to obstruct the introduction of any type of legislation which might save the lives of thousands upon thousands of workers at a small increase in operating expenses.

Even when legislation was in place, it needed to be enforced properly. Discussing safety in the automobile industry, future CPUSA leader Earl Browder (under the pseudonym George Morris) complained that Department of Labor had ‘neither the interest nor the facilities for proper inspection of the plants so as to at least enforce existing inadequate laws.’ In the article on silicosis, the journal demanded:

Only with the enforcement of public health legislation, inspired, administered and controlled by workers, will the disease, silicosis, a pernicious outgrowth of capitalist negligence and exploitation, be liquidated.

Secondly, the journal proposed that stronger unionisation in these workplaces could be used to collectively bargain for better conditions. As a February 1937 issue of the journal declared, ‘It is up to the trade unions and the masses of progressive people to remove this eyesore from the American industrial scene.’

This is the first in a series of posts on this subject. Stay tuned for further blog posts. To keep up to date, press the ‘follow’ button on the sidebar or like the Hatful of History FB page.