The 1910s Medicine and Health: Overview
The 1910s Medicine and Health: Overview
In the spirit of social reform that characterized the Progressive Era, the 1910s saw many developments in public health education. It also was a time for new diagnostic and surgical techniques and advances in the use of medicines and treatments. In the midst of so many improvements, however, the single most memorable health-related story is the "Spanish" influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. This infectious flu swept through Europe, Asia, and North America, affecting hundreds of millions and actually killing 21.6 million people, more than 1 percent of the entire world population. In the United States, fear overtook American cities, and lifestyles were altered to avoid spread of the disease. Americans were afraid to gather in public places; many isolated themselves in their homes. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the plague, the deadly disease that spread through Europe during the Middle Ages (500–c. 1500). Schools were closed, theaters were shut down, parades were canceled. People hid their faces behind facial masks to avoid inhaling germs. When the epidemic subsided, more than five hundred thousand Americans were dead. No medical researchers have yet figured out why or how the "Spanish" influenza epidemic ended.
Many lives were also claimed throughout the decade by pneumonia and tuberculosis. Yet, with improved treatments, mortality (death) rates decreased. Due to the efforts of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS), there was a widespread campaign to educate Americans about the causes of particular illnesses and the newly available treatments for various sicknesses. There also were improved facilities and equipment, better trained doctors, and health insurance to allow working-class people access to expensive treatments formerly reserved for the wealthy.
Medical researchers continued to unlock many secrets about the causes of illnesses, which resulted in identifying proper steps for prevention as well as effective treatments. Paul Ehrlich, a German bacteriologist (one who studies microscopic plants) and immunologist (one who studies the body's responses to antibodies) discovered the compound salvarsan, which stopped the venereal disease syphilis from spreading through the body. It also was a pioneering drug used in chemotherapy treatment of cancer patients. Even so, the nation continued to be plagued by venereal disease (illness that spreads from sexual intercourse with an infected person). The USPHS, with a staff of expert "germ hunters," assigned scientists to make studies of diseases that were ravaging regions of the country. As a result, the lives of thousands were saved from potentially fatal illnesses such as pellagra and hookworm. Although USPHS scientists also investigated outbreaks of polio, it would be several more decades before that crippling disease was eradicated. As is still true, cancer was prevalent, particularly stomach and skin cancer, and breast and uterine (womb) cancer among women. Treatments for cancer were quite primitive, as was the public's understanding of the illness.
Treatments of all sorts of diseases improved as new hospitals and clinics were opened across the nation. On the East Coast, large hospitals featured staffs of well-trained physicians and many newly designed machines. In the Midwest, group practices of several physicians and a shared business and support staff were appearing in many cities, making sophisticated medical treatment affordable to the working class. The Mayo brothers set the standard for group practice with their world-famous clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
The experiences of doctors during World War I (1914–18) helped medical professionals learn more about the state of health in America. Medical examinations on young male recruits revealed to doctors that many young Americans were suffering from physical conditions that could have been avoided through hygienic lifestyles and early and accessible medical treatment. They also found out that many young men were unfit for long marches carrying heavy backpacks and other military-related strength and endurance tests. As a result of the findings, physical education classes were added to public school programs across the country. Sometimes lifesaving breakthroughs come from adversity, and that certainly was the case with wartime medical advances during the 1910s. As American soldiers were wounded by enemy bullets and grenades, physicians at field hospitals near the front and in more formal hospitals back home developed new operating techniques to repair broken and shattered bodies. They introduced new surgical methods to avoid excessive blood loss and clear up infections. These advances later became standard procedures in civilian hospitals.
Fraudulent claims in the patent medicine industry continued to be a problem. Over-the-counter drugs containing addictive drugs, alcohol, and codeine were sold to millions of Americans, often to women for themselves and their infant children and sometimes with fatal results. These medicines claimed to cure all sorts of ailments from the common cold to "female problems" to cancer. Government legislation called for stricter guidelines in labeling and the American Medical Association (AMA), which took a growing role in the structure of the American medical industry, pressured manufacturers to use more honesty in their advertising.