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Health Conservation and the WPA

Health Conservation and the Works Progress Administration (WPA)

by Florence Kerr

Note: The following address was delivered by Mrs. Florence Kerr, Assistant Commissioner, Work Projects Administration, from the studios of WJSV, Washington, D. C., at 9:30 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, Saturday, October 21, 1939, under the auspices of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

I am very happy to speak today under the auspices of the Daughters of the American Revolution. In previous radio discussions, we have talked about what WPA is doing in the fields of Archaeology, Handicraft, Historical Records Survey and other subjects which have a special appeal to the D.A.R. The WPA covers many fields of human endeavor, but because of its interest to all Americans–and also because of the breadth and scope of the work–I have chosen to limit my discussion today to our health program.

The Professional and Service Division of the WPA, which I have the honor to head conducts many other programs besides this, of course, but I wonder how many members of this audience know the extent of WPA work in the field of public health. Our art, writers’, and music projects are well known. So is the broad program of adult education carried on under the direction of the State Boards of Education. The WPA Recreation program, the library projects, the work in museums, the engineering surveys and other white-collar projects all have an important place in the community and by now have come to be recognized as providing services our communities would find it a hardship to do without. Incidentally, I think Daughters of the American Revolution will be particularly interested in knowing that of the more than half a million people employed on professional and service projects, nearly 350,000 of them are women.

In our WPA project work, we have come to grips with the problem of public health on a number of important fronts, And when I say we have come to grips I mean that we are not just talking about the need for better sanitation the need for more medical, dental and nursing service, the need of school children for hot, well-balanced lunches, the need of home visits to underprivileged families in time of illness. Understand, please–We are not just talking about those things. We’re getting up in the morning and doing something about them.

Before going on with what we of the WPA are doing today, however, I want to pause here for a moment to pay a tribute to those great pioneers who have made modern sanitary living conditions a matter of course.–They are our public health officers and sanitary engineers. Every community that knows safety from epidemics and plagues, every community that is now able to trust its water supply, every community which is certain that its children are not going to succumb to the fearful scourges of the past,–all owe a debt of gratitude to these men. For well over fifty years public health officials and sanitary engineers have been carrying on one of the most remarkable battles in history–and it has been a battle every inch of the way–to make every city, town and village in the United States of America safe for our people to live in. These men have fought against ignorance and smugness. They have fought against local selfishness and national inertia. They have worked and schemed and planned and overcome, until finally they have made us understand that we needed our modern reservoirs, our modern disposal plants, our systems of water supply and purification plants; that we must have more hospitals and better equipment; that the lower income groups among us are not getting the medical treatment they need and that their children are dying at a rate that is a disgrace to society. I cannot tell you how much we owe to these public health officers and sanitary engineers, because nobody could tell that.

But one of the things I want to make clear is that for four years the WPA has had the privilege of placing at the disposal of these forward looking leaders a great many of our workers. Under their direction, we have carried on work that has made the health of thousands of communities better and safer than it could otherwise have been.

The essence of the WPA program is cooperation. It is ready with the workers to help public-spirited citizens make their communities better places to live in. People in this country do not need to take their desires for better sanitation out in merely wishing. They can help turn the hopes and dreams of sanitary engineers into realities. They do not need merely to wish that it were unnecessary for thousands of cases of serious illness to remain untreated. They can and should see that medical and nursing services are extended to a larger number of people who cannot pay for them.

The National Health Survey, one of our greatest WPA projects sponsored by the United States Public Health Service, revealed that every year some 2 million cases of serious illness go entirely without medical treatment. That is why the WPA maintains and assists clinics in most of our cities. That is why it sends nurses into the homes of the poor. That is why it builds hospitals and provides medical and dental treatment for people who could not receive such treatment otherwise.

In the first three years of the program, WPA built over 100 new hospitals and improved 1,422. It has provided technical and clerical workers for city health departments. It has organized and helped conduct maternal and child health clinics in hundreds of communities. It has been of vast help to the great venereal disease clinics in Chicago, New York and other cities. WPA assistance has made it possible for the Municipal Venereal Disease Clinic in Chicago to quadruple the number of treatments it previously gave per day. We are making a fight on hookworm, tuberculosis and sillicosis.

We have been cooperating with public health officials in the campaign against infantile paralysis ever since the WPA began to function. Our workers have helped in clean-up drives and general sanitation. We have built therapeutic pools in which children crippled from poliomyelitis could bathe and swim and learn to use and develop shrunken muscles. By administering the newly developed nasal spray to old and young, our nurses have attempted to immunize entire communities against the spread of this disease, and we believe they have succeeded.

A Fever Therapy Project operates at the U. S. Marine Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana, where a group of certified technicians and nurses are conducting experiments to determine the effect of induced fever on approximately thirty different types of diseases. Results obtained so far have been of extreme importance to medical science.

Ask any county health officer what has been done to wipe out typhoid and dysentery in rural communities by the WPA community sanitation program. I think you will be surprised. The Health Commissioner of Kentucky tells us that typhoid has now been practically wiped out in nearly every one of the 120 counties of that State. In most of the Southern States typhoid has been cut more than half by our community sanitation program.

Public health officers are justly proud of that, because it is they who carry the program into the community and see that it gets done. They appreciate, too, the fact that malaria control has been advanced by the WPA drainage program a whole generation in the States that were formerly ravaged by that disease.

During a three-year period over 3,500,000 people were treated in WPA clinics. Nurses were provided at nearly 900,000 immunizations. Into poor homes trained nurses have been vent by WPA on nearly 5 million visits. Furthermore, we have made a beginning in one of the most sadly neglected of all fields–that of providing housekeeping workers in poor homes where illness or childbirth has disabled the mother. These housekeeping aides who need employment give direct assistance to others who are desperate for help. They cook, clean and care for children until the mother is able to be up and about. They meet and face many types of problems–waging war on unsanitary conditions and disorder of every kind. Over 7 million such visits have been made, into stricken homes.

There is nothing–to my mind–more important than looking to the health of our future citizens. Children, who are inadequately fed over long periods of time, cannot be expected to develop into healthy, normal adults. And so WPA has a school lunch program. To many of the children served on these projects their school lunch is their only hot meal of the day and forms the very backbone of their diet. The success of the School Lunch program depends in part upon a supply of surplus commodities. So, we are working with the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation in the hope of feeding this school year a million and a half children–three times as many as we served last year. Even at that rate, however, we shall still fall far short of meeting the total need. Let me say here–it is my feeling that lack of nutrition must go in a land of plenty. How can America–with bulging granaries and great surpluses of other commodities–defend the presence of any hungry, undernourished children?

In fact, the whole impression that I would leave with you is not that we are doing all that needs to be done in the way of health conservation; but that we have shown (1) how much work there is that needs to be done, and (2) how we can go about doing it.

There are 40 million people in the United States who do not have a sufficient amount of the right kind of food, and who cannot afford to pay for medical attention. I think we should be looking forward to the time when not a single school child who needs glasses will be without them to the time when no child will receive low marks in school because of poor hearing to the time when a school principal will feel officially disgraced if early signs of tuberculosis are not discovered in time to save a child and to the time when no child will be backward in his grades because he cannot make them on an empty stomach.

The public health projects of the WPA point the way to such an era. But no one knows better than we do in the WPA how far our work falls short of what ought to be done. We will be glad to see our emergency health work surpassed. We shall be content to know that it was we who helped to lay the foundation for a permanent public health program. Such a permanent program cannot come too soon to suit us. It can come only when the American public realizes the necessity for it. And in the meantime we earnestly hope that the good beginnings already made will serve as a spur to the larger end.

The members of a great patriotic society like the Daughters of the American Revolution are in the forefront of public-spirited citizens without whom this important work would not be possible. To them, and to all other groups of citizens who have helped us to bring better health to millions of Americans, I wish today to extend my heartfelt thanks for all they have done and for all they will do.

Source: New Deal Network: —  National Archives: Works Progress Adminstration, Record Group 69, Series 737, Box 7  October 21, 1939