By Sophie Lipman
Religion and science, two concepts sometimes viewed as incompatible today, were seen by many in the 1930s and ‘40s as mutually supportive components for promoting the health of Americans.
During a time of political and economic calamity—the conflict in Europe, the Depression at home—the nation’s health was threatened as well. Venereal disease, tuberculosis, and poor hygiene and sanitation were of considerable concern to authorities. The medical establishment felt the public needed persuasive arguments to change unhealthy behaviors. Authorities sought to combine an enduring method of influence—the call of Christian morality—with a modern medium, film.
In a 1940 National Tuberculosis Association (NTA) film called Cloud in the Sky, set in the American Southwest, a Hispanic woman named Consuelo, after demonstrating symptoms of tuberculosis, is shown fervently praying in church. She has lost her mother to the disease and fears that she, too, is ill. After the service, she is approached by the priest. He advises Consuelo to seek medical attention immediately, explaining that she needs to do more than pray for her health. The priest explains to Consuelo that God gave man knowledge of science in order to help people; it is therefore her obligation as a Christian to seek help from a doctor, since “God wants us to use the gifts that He has given us from heaven.” The priest further warns his parishioner that she mustn’t rely on the “superstitious.” She must be guided by authorities who know what is best—church leaders in concert with medical professionals.
This reinforcement of public health messages in religious settings is seen again in the 1938 film Let My People Live, also an NTA production. A doctor is shown at the “Negro Health Week” service in a church, speaking to an exclusively black congregation about the necessity of treatment when tuberculosis signs begin. A member of the congregation, George, is shown hurrying home after a call from his sister, Mary, to let him know that their mother is seriously ill. The mother, who has relied on folk remedies to treat her tuberculosis symptoms, dies, but Mary and George both see the doctor, and Mary recovers in a sanatorium after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. The filmmakers recognized that the church represented both community and authority, and that it wielded significant influence. They hoped that viewers of the film would respond as did Mary and George, trusting and acting upon the advice offered.
Although the NTA, now called the American Lung Association, had no official religious affiliation, Christianity is deeply rooted in the association’s history. Its symbol was the Cross of Lorraine, known to some Catholics as the Crusader’s Cross. The organization established itself with monies raised through the sale of Christmas Seals, stamps sold in schools, churches, theaters, and other outlets beginning in 1907. A common theme within NTA productions was the efficacy of sanatoriums, rehabilitation centers for patients with tuberculosis. Many privately-owned sanatoriums were religiously affiliated and sought to minister to Christian patients. State-operated institutions allowed patients and staff to hold services and raise funds for chapels or other ecumenical buildings, reportedly to aid patients’ mental and moral health.
Christianity is again called upon to instill moral values and thus prevent disease in the film With These Weapons: The Story of Syphilis, produced in 1939 by the National Anti-Syphilis Committee of the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA). Beginning in 1913, ASHA promoted health in part by encouraging moral fitness, especially through the establishment of a school-based sex education program that emphasized Christian ideals and encouraged students to focus their energy not on sex, but rather on “kinship with the creative power itself.” In the title of the film, the “weapons” (in a militaristic style of language common for the era) are tools with which the population can prevent and treat syphilis. The narrator explains that churches are one of these useful weapons, as they “can do much by instilling high ideals.” Churches are not the only positive force; schools and parents also are important, as is the enforcement of laws in the community “to prevent degrading conditions” (e.g. prostitution).
In these interwar years, a large majority of Americans identified as Christian. Through these films, national health organizations hoped to influence this population and promote a healthier, more aware America. Interestingly, while these groups and films reached out to racial minorities, it appears there was no comparable attempt to reach non-Christian minorities with the same message.
Although not typical today, the use of religious rhetoric was common in this era. Film provided a vehicle—modern, dramatic moving pictures—to communicate this message of morality and obligation to a broad audience.
Sophie Lipman is a history major at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, currently volunteering for the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.