Disturbing Historical Antecedents in Maternal Child Health Policy: 1890-1930

Tuesday, 13 July 2010: 8:50 AM

Bonnie L. Pope, MSN, ARNP
School of Nursing, University of North Florida, Jacksonville, FL

Learning Objective 1: will be able to identify the role of nursing in developing maternal and child health policy.

Learning Objective 2: will be able to identify three influences of eugenics on health care.


The purpose of this presentation is to discuss the disturbing interplay among health care, eugenics, and race that influenced the development of maternal and child health policy from 1890 to 1930, the Progressive Era. During this time, while reformers recognized the need for policy development on state and federal levels to improve the health of women and children, some sought to address social ills by controlling reproduction and health care for those considered the least fit.

The method of Social History was used to investigate this topic.

Research question: What were the societal influences on developing maternal and child health policies during the years 1890-1930? Research question: What roles did nurses play in developing maternal and child health policies during the years 1890 – 1930? 


During the progressive era, increased public sympathy for the plight of women and children provided a platform for civic leaders to expand financial and public support for significant social causes. Public health nurses, such as Wald, played an important part in maternal and child health policy development. But, not surprisingly given the rising influence of Darwin among the intelligentsia of the era, the influences of eugenics and race were evident in maternal and child health policies developed at the time. 

Conclusion: Nursing was integral to reform efforts during this period (1890-1930), leading eventually to society’s greater commitments to the health of mothers and infants of all races. It is nevertheless disturbing to face the unsettling notion that nursing participated, if only to a small degree, in the eugenic influences in some of these policies. One has to remember that people live within the time, place, and belief system of their era.