Buying Better Babies: Popular Health Advice and Prenatal Care in the Early 20th Century

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:30 PM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Shannon Withycombe, University of New Mexico
By 1937 when Fred J. Taussig gave the presidential address before the American Gynecological Society, telling the “The Story of Prenatal Care,” American physicians and public health officials viewed prenatal care as an unprecedented success. Echoing many in the field Taussig looked to the success of the previous three decades and claimed: “it is not an idle boast that… we have succeeded in this country in developing one of the best organized systems for prenatal care in the world.” Certainly, many at the time could look to the 1940 census of proof of this success, as it showed the number of children dying before their first birthday had dropped 30% from 1910 and the infant mortality rate had been cut in half since the turn of the century.

The success of prenatal care is not merely a triumph of modern medicine, but a surprisingly rapid conceptual and practical shift in American pregnancy. This paper will explore the roll of health consumerism in setting the stage for the rapid adoption of prenatal health care. By examining pregnancy advice in popular health guides and women’s magazines in the first few decades of the twentieth century, I will discuss how women’s acceptance of prenatal health care hinged in part upon an already established rhetoric of maternal impressions, maternal influence, and the duty of parents in the development of their child long before birth. Rather than viewing the rapid success of prenatal health care as proof of the cultural authority and success of American medicine and public health, we should instead consider the establishment of prenatal health care as part of a longer story including health consumerism, parenting advice, and print media in the early twentieth century.

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