American Social Health Association
Introduction: At the beginning of the twentieth century venereal disease was a prevalent concern for social health organizations. Diseases such a syphilis and gonorrhea affected many people and the social stigma attached to sexually transmitted disease prevented most people from discussing or addressing means of treatment for venereal disease.
Development and Activity: In 1913, at a conference in Buffalo, New York, several organizations dedicated to fighting prostitution and venereal disease joined together to form the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA). Key figures in the initial organization included John D. Rockefeller, Jr., initial financial contributor; Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University; Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull House; Dr. William Snow, Stanford University professor and secretary of the California State Board of Health; Dr. Thomas Hepburn, leader of the Connecticut social hygiene movement; David Starr Jordan, chancellor of Stanford University; James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore; philanthropist, Grace H. Dodge; and R. Fulton (Robert Fulton) Cutting of New York. The association was established to stop the venereal disease epidemic by educating the public about sexually transmitted infections, working to break down the social stigma attached to VD, and encouraging high moral standards. In 1914, ASHA established its national headquarters in New York City, a western division office in San Francisco, and a central states division office in Chicago.
ASHA immediately went to work to fight VD as the United States prepared for the first world war. Venereal disease was a significant problem in the military. ASHA worked with the U.S. War Department on a vigorous anti-VD campaign. Their efforts involved two primary strategies. The first was to educate soldiers about venereal diseases and their transmission. The second strategy was to eliminate prostitution, which was believed to be the primary vehicle for VD transmission among the armed forces. ASHA was successful in shutting down many of the prostitution rings that traditionally surrounded military bases. Due to its contribution to the war effort, ASHA gained national attention and succeeded in creating public awareness of VD.
During the 1920s, ASHA served as a central coordinator for the local or regional committees, doctors, public health officials, and social welfare agencies that were combating venereal disease and
vice. In addition to the continued fight against venereal disease and prostitution, ASHA published the Journal of Social Hygiene and the Social Hygiene Bulletin.In addition, ASHA conducted studies on the prevalence of syphilis, undertook community vice and VD surveys, published synopses of laws affecting prostitution and vice, and supported legislation which required a premarital exam for syphilis. The organization also promoted character and sex education as a means of preventing the spread of venereal disease. The ASHA educational program emphasized preparation for a wholesome family life, avoiding venereal disease, and physical as well as moral fitness.
During World War II, ASHA fulfilled a role reminiscent of its work during World War I, serving on the VD Coordinating Committee for the U.S. military and working against prostitution. ASHA’s efforts contributed to a fifty percent drop in VD infection rates in the military during the first years of the war. In 1944, the army began using the “wonder drug” penicillin as a cure for syphilis and, by the late 1950s, ASHA believed that syphilis would no longer pose a serious health threat. As a result, the Journal of Social Hygiene discontinued publication.
Beginning in the 1950s, ASHA expanded its family life education efforts and added new programs aimed at drug and alcohol abuse. The Family Life program explored experimental school curricula and the drug abuse program set up regional committees that published scholarly papers. In 1960, ASHA changed its name from “hygiene” to “health” to reflect its broader approach. The association’s newsletter became “Social Health News.”In the 1960s, ASHA studied the extent of narcotics addiction in the United States and became a primary source of public information on the problem. During the 1970s, ASHA also continued its work on venereal disease. Despite the use of antibiotics, health problems such as syphilis and gonorrhea persisted. In addition, genital herpes, human papillomavirus, and hepatitis B were identified. ASHA developed new programs, such as the Venereal Diseases Research Fund (1975) and a Herpes Resource Center (1979), in response to the continuing problem of sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, ASHA increased its activities in the area of legislation and public policy and established an Office on Public and Government Affairs in Washington. In 1975, the ASHA newsletter changed its name from “Social Health News” to “VD News” and, in the next year, the association moved from New York to Palo Alto, California.
During the 1980s, ASHA continued to educate the public about sexually transmitted diseases, primarily by means of telephone information and referral hotlines, such as the National STD Hotline and the National Aids Hotline. The association also continued to advocate for public policies to combat STD’s and increased funding for research. The identification of the AIDS virus added a new area of concern to the association’s long fight against sexually transmitted diseases.
American Social Health Association Records, 1905-2005. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN: https://www.lib.umn.edu/swha
ASHA historical summary by Allen Brandt published in the 1988 ASHA annual report (copy in ASHA records, Box 191).
“American Social Health Association” historical sketch. In Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Institutions, Social Service Organizations, edited by Peter Romanofsky, 150-159. London: Greenwood Press, 1978.
For More Information, visit: The American Social Health Association website http://www.ashastd.org.
For Further Reading:
“The Case Against the Red Light” (1920), a pamphlet created by the American Social Hygiene Association for the United States Public Health Service