Health anxieties and the management of personal and social hygiene in early twentieth century Australian schools

Year: 2021

Author: Burns, Kellie, Proctor, Helen

Type of paper: Workshop

This paper focuses on the historical intersections of public health, schooling and the bodies of children and young people, to argue that the project of re-imagining educational research and policy in the current time requires careful consideration of the past. Current anxieties about schools as sites for the spread of COVID-19 are reminiscent of early public health efforts to manage schooling environments as potentially infectious sites, and to understand the risks posed by children intermingling in school settings.  Across the Western world, school hygiene and medical services emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century as part of a broader sanitation regime.  The priorities of early school medical inspectors were informed by the principles of sanitary science  - drainage, ventilation, heating, lavatories – ensuring schools had clean buildings and grounds. However, a concern for the management of contagious disease also underpinned the widespread emergence of school-based medical services in the West. At the turn of the century, discourses of personal and social hygiene proliferated and children’s bodily boundaries at school overtook traditional concerns about sanitation. Compulsion brought children together from across populations, making schools a locus for contagious disease and an important site for intervening in family and community health. The focus became regimes of personal hygiene and attention was paid to the spaces around and between the bodies of children in order to manage the spread of disease. The source of contagious disease was no longer the dirty or unhygienic school setting, but rather the body and bodily habits of the child. This paper attends to the ways in which the programs and practices of New South Wales School Medical Service, which operated formally in schools from roughly 1913-1950, produced and normalized health anxieties about children’s personal and social hygiene, and about particular body parts. Children’s hands, eyes, noses and mouths were observed, categorized, diagnosed and reported upon as part of early school-based public health research and bureaucracy. Alongside the measuring and recording of bodies, the School Medical Service also intervened in the lives of children and families through formal and informal health education initiatives. Both facets of the Service created new types of work and responsibilities for teachers – work that was gendered. Teachers, predominantly women, acquired new skills and knowledge with which to scrutinize and discern the health of their students. They then recorded and reported this in support of school medical inspectors, a workforce predominantly composed of men.