What a Boy Scout Merit Badge Tells Us About the History of Public Health

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

This month, the Boy Scouts of America celebrated its 106th birthday. To mark the occasion, we are featuring at a pamphlet from our collection, called simply Public Health.

In 1922, the Boy Scouts published the pamphlet as one of a series designed for scouts to study in order to receive merit badges. Though as the pamphlet states:

“It would defeat one of the purposes of these merit badge tests if any attempt were made in a pamphlet of this character to so completely cover the requirements as to remove the necessity for the boy to use his own initiative and show his resourcefulness in seeking sufficiently complete information and practical experience to enable him to successfully pass the test.”1

What was on the test? The cover explains:

The cover and inside cover of Public Health, 1922.

The cover and inside cover of Public Health, 1922. Click to enlarge.

We can’t resist a close up of the cartoon at the bottom of the cover, showing how boy scouts with knowledge of public health best practices chase away causes of disease, from bad sanitation and drainage to flies and mosquitoes to “general disorder and filth.”1

A close-up of the cartoon on the cover of Public Health, 1922.

A close-up of the cartoon on the cover of Public Health, 1922.

The Boy Scouts of America still offer a merit badge in public health. Interestingly, many of the requirements are strikingly similar to their 1922 counterparts. Today’s scouts must explain disease transmission (though diseases have changed from tuberculosis, typhoid, and malaria to E. coli, tetanus, AIDS, encephalitis, salmonellosis, and Lyme disease). Instead of drawing a house-fly and showing how it carries disease, boy scouts today have to discuss how to control insects and rodents to prevent them from introducing pathogens.2

The major difference between today’s test and that of 1922 is the addition of a question about immunization. Today’s scouts must define the term and discuss diseases that can and cannot be prevented through immunization. In 1920, 7,575 Americans died of measles, 13,170 died of diphtheria, and 5,099 died of pertussis.3 In 1922, the only vaccine recommended for universal use in children was smallpox. By the end of the 1920s, diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus joined that list, followed by polio, measles, mumps, and rubella in the 1960s and 70s.3 Today, there are 15 vaccine-preventable childhood diseases.4

While many of the same public health issues have remained at the forefront since 1922, our means of responding to them have progressed. If there is still a test for a public health merit badge in another 94 years, one hopes that the questions will reflect even more advances in prevention and control of disease.


1. Public Health. Boy Scouts of America; 1922.

2. Public Health. Available at: http://www.scouting.org/Home/BoyScouts/AdvancementandAwards/MeritBadges/mb-PUBH.aspx. Accessed February 10, 2016.

3. Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999 Impact of Vaccines Universally Recommended for Children — United States, 1990-1998. MMWR Wkly. 1999;48(12):243–248. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00056803.htm#00003752.htm. Accessed February 10, 2016.

4. Vaccines: VPD-VAC/Childhood VPD. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/child-vpd.htm. Accessed February 10, 2016.