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Milestones in Social Hygiene

Milestones in Social Hygiene  (1870 – 1930)

by: Anna Garlin Spencer

From 1870 to the formation of the American Purity Alliance there was developed in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities what were called moral education societies.  The organization of the American Purity Alliance in 1895, brought these moral education societies and similar bodies together in one organization the leadership of which was entrusted to Aaron M.  Powell.

The international effort to abolish the traffic in women for immoral purposes led to the formation of the National Vigilance Committee which worked in association with the American Purity Alliance until 1912.

In 1910, the American Federation for Sex Hygiene was formed in St. Louis.  That organization particularly dealt with the medical elements of what we now call the social hygiene movement.

The third group of organizations interested in measures for the protection of the family and for the development of character training led to an organization called the National League for the Protection of the Family, thus showing that from the beginning the effort was made to bring legal protection, medical instruction and aid, and moral education to bear upon the problems of sex relationship and the family.

Through the consolidation of the American Federation for Sex Hygiene, the American Vigilance Association (which was the later name for the American Vigilance Committee) the American Purity Alliance, and other agencies for social service, the present American Social Hygiene Association came into existence in 1914, with Charles W. Eliot as President and James Bronson Reynolds and William F. Snow as the executive officers.

The Brussels Conference of 1902 and 1904 which had assisted in the inauguration of educational propaganda were greatly aided by the presence of Dr. Prince A. Morrow in those conferences, which he attended as a delegate from the United States.  His pioneer work in this country was likewise invaluable in its influence upon the medical profession and upon educators.

During the period form 1900 to 1910, valuable data secured for the more intelligent direction of medical treatment for diseases incident to sex promiscuity led to a practical campaign against those diseases begun in 1912.

The active presidency of the Association passed from Dr. Charles W. Eliot to that of Dr. Abram W. Harris, then President of Northwestern University.  In October5 1917, Dr. William H. Welch was elected President and gave to the Association the great benefit of his knowledge of the social hygiene movement and his personal acquaintance with citizens and governmental officers whose cooperation is vitally essential.

In 1914, the World War began, and in 1917 the United States joined the allied forces.  For the first time in the history of wars, conscious and determined efforts were made to combine medical, educational, and social service under governmental supervision for the protection of the soldiers against disease.  The secretaries of War and Navy created commissions on training camp activities, large sums of money were raised for social hygiene work to be applied by such organizations as the American Playground Association, Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations, the Knights of Columbus, the American Social Hygiene Association, Travelers’ Aid Societies and other similar bodies.  Large numbers of civilians undertook to assist in this general work, and many of them gave service at the front.

The formation of the Interdepartmental Social Hygiene Board in 1918 focussed attention upon and secured effective organization of all these varied forces enlisted in the service of the health and morals of the young men of the Army.

The leadership of Dr. Welch as President of the Association and as an officer in the Army was of inestimable value in all this cooperation work.  After the armistice was signed and attention was redirected to civilian work, the active presidency passed into the hands of Dr. Hermann H. Biggs, and the American Social Hygiene Association organized its main divisions of work as legal measures, protective measures, educational measures, medical measures and public information service including the publication of the monthly journal, and enlisted the service of a large and able corps of workers.

The work of the state and local societies has been increasingly broadened and strengthened, and in addition much social hygiene content has been stimulated in various national organizations with which the national association has worked under cooperative agreements.

In 1923 the Council of the League of Nations appointed a Special Body of Experts for investigation of the traffic in women and girls for immoral purposes.  The American Social Hygiene Association contributed to that Body of Experts the services of its General Director to serve as chairman and the Director of its Division of Legal Measures to serve as chairman and the Director of its Division of Legal Measures to serve as director of Investigations.  These representatives of the interest of our country and the effective work of our Association gave devoted service during the three years when this inquiry was conducted and reported upon, and the results of the study with the recommendations of the Experts were embodied in the report presented to the Assembly of the League in 1928.

The establishment of a Committee on International Relations of the American Social Hygiene Association indicated the broad interest of the movement, and continued to bind national effort to the social work of the League of Nations.

The latest attempt to unify and make more effective the work of the Association is evidenced by the inauguration of a Division of Family Relations.  Devotion to its original purpose of the “preservation and improvement of the family” has marked the Association from the beginning, and the efforts now being indicated in the plans of this new division have been implicit in all the work since the formation of the Association.  Such efforts however are now being made more explicit in the proposal to develop a national clearing-house-service for all those interested in helping toward wise choices in marriage, successful family life, and competent parenthood.

In all the work of this present Association, its efforts have been directed towards highest needs of social usefulness by the five great leaders who have served it interests since 1914, namely, Charles W. Eliot, Abram W. Harris, Hermann M. Biggs, William H. Welch, and the present president Edward L. Keyes, who has been continuously an official and worked in the Association since its formation in 1914.


Note: The American Social Hygiene Association changed its Name to the American Social Health Association in 1960.

Editor’s Note:  Below is a brief narrative of the early history of the American Social Hygiene Association

The American Social Hygiene Association – A Brief Historical Statement-Circa 1948


Activities — Early History: 1914-1916

The American Social Hygiene Association, now it is thirty-fifth year of national service, grew out of a merger of national voluntary health, educational, and law enforcement agencies concerned with the complex of problems now generally known as social hygiene.  Incorporation as a “national voluntary non-profit membership organization” took place in March 1914.  Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard, was the Association’s first President.  Among the early Vice-Presidents were David Starr Jordan, President of Stanford University, Felix M. Werburg and R. Fulton Gutting of New York, Jane Addams of Chicago, and James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore.  The Board of Directors, then as now, include a group of distinguished men and women of national standing.

The program adopted in these early days of the Association’s history is its program today.  It includes:

Medical and Public Health Measures –to combat syphilis and gonorrhea as dangerous communicable diseases, and hazards to family and personal health and happiness.

Legal and Protective Measures –to repress prostitution leading to sexual promiscuity and sex delinquency, and to aid victims of such conditions in restoring themselves to normal lives.

Educational Measures –to provide sound character-training in childhood and youth, as a major influence in the promotion of high moral standards of sex conduct; to furnish accurate and suitable sex instruction as a part of human relations education and of training for marriage and parenthood.

Public Information and Community Action –to enable the people to take full advantage of the protection and safeguards provided against venereal diseases, prostitution and promiscuity; and to build informed and favorable public opinion leading to community social hygiene action as needed.


Since young people between the ages of 15 and 30 are the chief victims of venereal disease, since they are the age-group most exploited by prostitution, and since they are most benefited by constructive social hygiene efforts in home, school, church and community, it goes without saying that social hygiene form the beginning has been a program for and of youth.


The First World War: 1917-1918-1919

While the organization was in its infancy, was came, first to Europe and then to the United States, and the Association’s broad program was adapted to allow its active participation in the education and protection of our military forces at home and abroad.  All of its staff were assigned during the entire war period to active duty with the Army or Navy or as civilians with the Commission on Training Camp Activities which took over responsibility for educational activities in the Armed Forces and for stimulation of law enforcement in communities near Army and Navy posts and stations.  The Association at the same time financed the production and supply of educational materials and the collection of the confidential information regarding community conditions.


The work of the War and Navy Department Commissions on Training Camp Activities was under the direction of Mr. Raymond B. Fosdick as chairman.  Its staff was composed of Army and Navy officers, including those take into the Armed Forces from the staff of the Association and in addition a small number of civilian employees.




Financial support in early years, as later, came from contributions from interested citizens, membership dues, and to a minor extent sales of educational materials.  Annual income during the early years was not large, as the following figures indicate:


1914 (6 months)  $61,726.55

1915                     $39,449.67

1916                     $63,591.39


With the coming of war the Association’s income grew to make possible the assumption of new and heavy responsibilities.  This growth is shown in the following figures for annual income during the war years:


1917                $75,038.37

1918                $230,283.22


(The above figure included a contribution of $109,837.05 from the Rockefeller Foundation to the American Social Hygiene Association for the work of the Commission on Training Activities)


1919                $338,524.79


(Included $196,318.61 from the Rockefeller Foundation for the C.TC. C.A)

Source: American Social Health Association Records, 1905-2005. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

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