The 1940s Medicine and Health: Overview

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The 1940s Medicine and Health: Overview

Many changes took place in American medicine and public health during the 1940s. The urgency of war meant that medical research was better coordinated, better financed, and better able to produce new drugs and treatments. Penicillin and "sulfa" drugs became more widely available to treat infectious diseases. The insecticide DDT destroyed insects that carried malaria and yellow fever. Better blood transfusion methods improved the speed and success of surgical operations, while technology from the nuclear industry brought new radiation therapies to fight disease. Advances in the treatment of mental health problems also were made during the decade. Many soldiers suffered mental problems as a result of combat; consequently, psychiatry (the branch of medicine concerned with mental health) took on a higher profile. Despite concerns about some of the more radical mental health treatments, psychiatric patients were treated better overall than they ever had been before.

As the decade began, the federal government took a more active role in medicine. Federal support for medical research increased, while new agencies took charge of health care and research. The National Heart Institute, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Centers for Disease Control were all set up in the 1940s. The American Medical Association (AMA) did not like federal interference in medicine. It fought hard against calls for a national health insurance program. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his successor, Harry S Truman, tried and failed to push the idea through Congress. But the 1946 Hospital Survey and Construction Act (known as the Hill-Burton Act) did give the federal government more freedom to pay for hospital buildings. Over 280 new hospitals were built in America during the 1940s.

The expansion of medicine was desperately needed in America. The war meant that many doctors signed up for military service, creating severe shortages of physicians across the country. Even though new hospitals were being built, medical schools did not expand enrollment to meet the increased demand for physicians. One effect of the crisis was to make health care much more expensive. The average income for physicians (before deductions for expenses) more than doubled during the 1940s, to $19,710. In the same period, the nation's total medical expenses rose from $3 billion to over $8 billion. In 1944, a middle-class American family with an annual income of $2,378 spent $148, or 6 percent of their income, on health care. Poorer families spent an even higher percentage of their income on medical expenses. Families that earned $500 a year spent about $62, or 12 percent, of their income on health care.

Overall, the health of the nation improved in the 1940s. The number of infant deaths fell as infections became easier to treat. The number of people aged sixty-five and over increased from 6.9 percent of the population to 8.2 percent. As a result, diseases of the elderly, such as cancer, heart disease, and strokes, became more common. Many infectious diseases, such as syphilis, could be treated with the new drug penicillin. But poliomyelitis (also known as infantile paralysis or polio) continued to be a problem. The polio epidemic of 1949 claimed thirty thousand victims. Yet despite such ongoing battles, for most Americans the fight against disease symbolized the nation's postwar success. Medical progress, it seemed, was unstoppable.

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The 1940s Medicine and Health: Overview