Catherine Carstairs, Bethany Philpott, and Sara Wilmshurst, Be Wise! Be Healthy! Morality and Citizenship in Canadian Public Health Campaigns (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 2018)

By Kealey, Linda | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Catherine Carstairs, Bethany Philpott, and Sara Wilmshurst, Be Wise! Be Healthy! Morality and Citizenship in Canadian Public Health Campaigns (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 2018)


Kealey, Linda, Labour/Le Travail


Catherine Carstairs, Bethany Philpott, and Sara Wilmshurst, Be Wise! Be Healthy! Morality and Citizenship in Canadian Public Health Campaigns (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 2018)

CO-AUTHORED BY Catherine Carstairs and two of her former Master's students, Be Healthy, Be Wise follows the evolution of a Toronto and Ontario-centric public health organization that had ambitions to become a national voice for public health education. The Canadian National Council for Combatting Venereal Disease emerged at the end of World War I to become the Canadian Social Hygiene Council in 1922, finally morphing into the Health League in 1935. Dr. Gordon Bates (b.1885), an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of Venereal Disease (VD), led these organizations until his death in 1975. He was instrumental in rejecting the predominant focus on the environmental causes of illness in favour of the individual's responsibility to take proper preventative measures to ensure health. Clearly influenced by eugenics, these organizations pushed the idea that changing individual behavior could prevent disease. Included in this expectation was the responsibility of the individual to seek out medical expertise, to have regular checkups, and to follow medical advice. Thus "health citizenship," a concept the authors derive from the work of British historian, Dorothy Porter, became an individual's responsibility. In Bates' view health education provided the answer not only to physical health but also to mental, moral, and social health. In promulgating his vision of a national preventative health strategy, Bates recruited wealthy business and professional men as well as politicians to his cause, many of them medical professionals. Some prominent women also participated in core committees but the National Board of the Health League was 90 per cent male. Despite these connections, the Health League was often short of funds and its attempts to enroll subscribers to its magazine and other projects often fell short. Bates' dislike of joint funding strategies also cost him financial support as did controversy over some of the League's campaigns.

Successful campaigns emerged in the late 1920s and into the 1930s to vaccinate against diptheria which was a leading cause of death in children and to require pasteurization of milk. With the assistance of public health officials in Toronto and the province, Bates and his organization mounted a campaign in the press and on radio to convince parents to vaccinate their children, although he totally ignored the role that poverty played in illness. Schools and churches also worked with the Toronto Diptheria Committee to increase vaccination rates resulting in dramatic drops in death rates in Toronto and Ontario by the late 1930s, which was not the case in the rest of the country. Similarly, but more slowly, pasteurization of milk became a cause for concern as tuberculosis could be spread through milk. Medical experts urged milk consumption as a "protective" food especially for children. While Ontario passed compulsory legislation in 1938, as Toronto had done in 1914, exemptions were allowed for more remote areas without proper facilities. Indeed, the authors note that economics were equally important in encouraging pasteurization as the milk lasted longer.

World War II witnessed an increased emphasis on VD education and prevention; in contrast to World War I when men were blamed for spreading the disease, women were targeted, a trend noted by Ruth Pierson in her study, "They're Still Women After All" (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986). The Health League primarily viewed VD as a moral problem thus alienating public health officials' support. Furthermore, Bates feared that the availability of penicillin would only encourage immorality. Post-war campaigning focused on pre-marital testing for syphilis but by the mid-1950s only the three prairie provinces and Prince Edward Island passed and enforced compulsory testing. …

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