A Network of Eugenic Maternalism: Finding the New York Babies’ Welfare Association at the New York Academy of Medicine Library

By Jamie Marsella, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University, and the Library’s 2022 Paul Klemperer Fellow

Ms. Marsella completed her Fellowship residency in summer 2022 and will present her research by Zoom on September 7 at 4:00 pm (EDT). To attend her talk, “‘Where Once There Was Only Friction’: Religion, Eugenic Maternalism, and the Babies’ Welfare Association, 1908–1920,” register through the Academy’s Events page.

I’ll start this blog post with a confession: before sitting down in the NYAM Rare Book Room, I was worried there might not be enough materials to keep me busy for a full month. How profoundly wrong I was!

I arrived at NYAM to conduct research for my dissertation—an exploration of the New York Babies’ Welfare Association (1912–1920). The BWA was an organization that aimed to standardize maternal and pediatric public health programs while remaining a loose federation of public health and child welfare organizations, including private philanthropic and religious groups.

The Babies’ Welfare Association was created by the New York City Bureau of Child Hygiene in 1912. Neither organization has a stand-alone archival collection, nor do most of the 120+ individual organizations within the BWA. Before arriving, I could not have known that the NYAM Library would hold more relevant materials than I could ever have imagined.

The BWA was abundantly represented within the NYAM collections. This makes sense since, for the first two decades of the twentieth century, the BWA was a well-known, highly publicized organization in New York City. The Chief of the Bureau and President of the BWA, Dr. Sara Josephine Baker (1873–1945),[1] was a household name not only in New York, but throughout the country, with movie reels produced by Fox Studios, a monthly Good Housekeeping column, multiple books on child health and parenting, a regular radio broadcast, and constant coverage in the local and national press.

An informative organizational chart created by the BWA from Report of the Babies’ Welfare Association, 1912–1915.

Unlike negative eugenic programs (i.e., sterilization, anti-miscegenation laws) that came to dominate later in the century, early twentieth-century reformers understood eugenic reform as a combination of heredity and environmental conditions. In this framework, improved sanitation, nutrition, and hygiene could improve individuals and enable them to pass on these improvements to their future offspring. The BWA emphasized these changes in the environment, promoting them as eugenic maternalism. In other words, the BWA understood mothers as the family’s first line of defense against disease and, therefore, an essential part in preventing “racial degeneration.” The BWA, therefore, targeted immigrant neighborhoods with the explicit desire to “improve” white-ethnic communities and prevent future supposedly dysgenic generations.

I came to NYAM hoping to better understand why Catholic and Jewish organizations might be interested in participating in this eugenic standardization project and how their participation may have shaped how the BWA understood and operationalized eugenics. I also hoped to clarify the role that Black reformers and patients played within the BWA. Based on what I had gleaned from digitized sources, the BWA’s work with Black philanthropic groups was inconsistent, and their relationships were unclear.

Sisters of Charity and their young charges at the New York Foundling Asylum.
Image Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

The materials I’ve reviewed at NYAM paint a complicated and nuanced picture. Some religious organizations, like the New York Foundling Asylum and other benevolent institutions run by women religious, understood their own religious missions as Catholics in a way that blended nicely with the assimilationist goals of eugenic maternalism.

Young girls from the Hebrew Orphan Asylum practicing patriotism at a camp excursion.
Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Report of the Ninety Ninth Annual Meeting and the Ceremonies Commemorating the Centennial Anniversary of the founding of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, 1822–1922. 1922; New York Academy of Medicine Library.

Similarly, Jewish organizations like the United Hebrew Charities or the Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities understood their work as both a religious mission and an assimilating force. Such groups were eager to associate their religious and cultural practices with Americanism, especially in the face of rising antisemitism.

Most BWA members held a capacious view of their work beyond childcare, health and hygiene, or charitable aid. As I continued to work through the Library’s documents, it became clear that members of the BWA were pursuing something far broader than public health or bodily hygiene. These programs were about “right living”—teaching women and children how to conduct themselves in public and private, how to understand one’s role as a (future) citizen, or how to raise and nurture the future citizens in their care.

The graduating class of nurses trained at the Lincoln Hospital, 1905.
Lincoln Hospital and Home. Sixty-Fifth Annual Report, 1904–1905. 1905;
New York Academy of Medicine Library.

Within these different organizational records, there were also small glimpses of public health work specifically targeting the Black community. While the connections between the BWA and Black New Yorkers remained muddled, my time at NYAM has helped me understand this reflects the nature of the work, which was sporadic at best and exploitative at worst. The Lincoln Hospital and Home (a BWA member) is one exception to this general rule. The hospital trained Black nurses, many of whom then worked in the hospital treating both Black and white patients or worked with the Henry Street Settlement House (another member) in their Visiting Nursing Service.

Ultimately, my time at NYAM was invaluable. The materials there allowed me to better understand how the members of the BWA negotiated amongst themselves to create a standardized eugenic program that could encompass different ethnicities and religions.  


[1] For more information on S. Josephine Baker, see “Highlighting NYAM Women in Medical History: Sara Josephine Baker, MD, DrPh” on the NYAM blog “Books, Health, and History.”

Child Health Around the Maypole

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

From 1924 through 1960, May 1 marked the celebration of Child Health Day, as described in the pamphlet The Goal of May Day: A Year-Round Program:

May Day as Child Health Day holds within it the power of a great vision. Its goal is to focus the interest of the nation upon perfected childhood—with the hope of a start in life free, sound and richly potential for every child….

This day has been given to the country to become, like the Maypole, a central rallying point for all the diverse activities concerned with the welfare of children….1

"The summer round-up, with the State Congress of Parents and Teachers and the State Bureau of Maternity and Infancy cooperating in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In The Goal of May Day, 1928.

“The summer round-up, with the State Congress of Parents and Teachers and the State Bureau of Maternity and Infancy cooperating in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In The Goal of May Day, 1928.

The American Child Health Association (ACHA)—an organization founded by Herbert Hoover in 1923 with the merging of the American Child Hygiene Association and the Child Health Organization—began Child Health Day in 1924. The ACHA was inspired by the success of National Baby Week, an observance that spread awareness of infant care to millions by 1919 (clearly, awareness days and weeks are not a new phenomenon).1,2 The ACHA was also motivated by Congressional inaction (also not a new phenomenon); President Wilson had called for a child health program in 1919, to no avail.

Cover of The Goal of May Day, 1928.

Cover of The Goal of May Day, 1928.

Aida de Acosta Breckinridge, wife of President Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of War Henry Breckinridge (and intriguingly, the first woman to pilot an aircraft solo), thought up May Day as Child Health Day and ran with the idea. Through her efforts, three million department stores nationwide handed out booklets on child health. Magazines like Women’s World and Literary Digest promoted the day.2 In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge officially declared Child Health Day a national celebration. It remains one today, though in 1960, Child Health Day moved to the first Monday in October.3

By 1928, when the ACHA released The Goal of May Day, the organization viewed May Day-Child Health Day as a time to celebrate the past year’s child welfare successes and plan for the year ahead. As the pamphlet emphasizes, May Day-Child Health Day activities occurred thanks to the efforts of community groups and local governments rather than through centralized ACHA planning, “each [group] coloring [May Day] with its own interpretation and using it according to its needs.”1 The Goal of May Day provides these organizations tips and lists of further resources to plan events and to improve child health year-round.

"A child health clinic in a church." In The Goal of May Day, 1928.

“A child health clinic in a church.” In The Goal of May Day, 1928.

The challenge was significant: the pamphlet states that 18,000 mothers died in childbirth in the United States each year. In 1924, cites the pamphlet, “the stillbirth rate was 3.9 per 100 live births.” While infant deaths from diarrhea and enteritis were down by 1928, those from congenital malformation, birth injuries, and premature birth had risen. And between infancy and school age, fifty percent of deaths came from diphtheria, recently preventable by vaccine.1

Making them safe from the great menace - diphtheria. In The Goal of May Day, 1928.

“Making them safe from the great menace – diphtheria.” In The Goal of May Day, 1928.

On a larger scale, the pamphlet offers a community health inventory to spur local government to improve child health, with questions ranging from “Have you a safe water supply?” to “Is there a tuberculosis clinic?” to “Is there an organized course of study for the education of the school child in health?”

"The parochial school had its health float on May Day." In The Goal of May Day, 1928.

“The parochial school had its health float on May Day.” In The Goal of May Day, 1928.

For community groups, the pamphlet recommends consulting with national organizations—the Girl Reserves, Boy Scouts, Jewish Welfare Board, National Catholic Welfare Conference, Child Study Association, and more—to plan programs and events like home demonstrations, distribution of health-related literature, community clean ups, health dramatizations, athletics, and exhibits.1

"4-H girls club learn from the home demonstration agents." In The Goal of May Day, 1928.

“4-H girls club learn from the home demonstration agents.” In The Goal of May Day, 1928.

May Day - Child Health Day, on the school playgrounds at Rapid City, South Dakota. In The Goal of May Day, 1928.

May Day – Child Health Day, on the school playgrounds at Rapid City, South Dakota. In The Goal of May Day, 1928.

The American Child Health Association closed in 1935. During its 12 years of existence, it raised about $5 million for child-focused community services.2 And the observance of Child Health Day continues some 92 years after it began, though no longer around a Maypole.

1. The Goal of May Day: A Year-round Community Child Health Program. New York: American Child Health Association; 1928.

2. Lee RA. From Snake Oil to Medicine: Pioneering Public Health. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group; 2007.

3. Health Resources and Services Administration. Child Health Day History. Available at: http://mchb.hrsa.gov/childhealthday/history.html. Accessed April 27, 2016.