by Spencer Howard
During and after World War I, Herbert Hoover led two great humanitarian organizations, the Commission for Relief in Belgium and the American Relief Administration. Of special concern to both organizations was the plight of children in war-ravaged Europe, and under Hoover’s direction over 15 million children received food, clothing, and other assistance. Hoover realized that the needs of children, both in Europe and America, were not being met, but more importantly, were not well understood. Most aspects of nutrition, child development and infant mortality were poorly documented and inadequately publicized.
Back in the United States health care reformers were coming to similar conclusions. In 1920, Hoover was asked to lead the American Child Hygiene Association, one of numerous small charitable organizations throughout the country dedicated to child health issues. Dismayed by the fragmented efforts, Hoover orchestrated the merger of the American Child Hygiene Association with another group, the Child Health Organization of America. The combined organization was called the American Child Health Association, and under Hoover’s leadership it undertook a nationwide campaign to improve child health.
One of the first major programs of the ACHA was a widely-publicized national survey of health conditions in 86 mid-sized cities. (Larger cities had already been surveyed by the Department of Labor.) The survey revealed that 41 cities had no full-time health official, that half of the cities had no reliable child birth/mortality records, that vaccinations were not required in 37 cities, that pasteurization of the milk supply was required in only 8 cities, and that there was no health instruction in 21 cities. The publication of these results shocked the nation and stirred up demand for improvements. Hoover later proudly recalled that “our published plan for ideal community organization became a bible for many a belligerent mother’s society.”
To generate more publicity, the ACHA sought to transform May Day into Child Health Day. Beginning in 1924, newspapers and magazines were deluged with articles about child health to be published on May Day. Health officials at the state and local level used the heightened publicity to bring attention to the ongoing problems and recent successes in their local communities. Schools, churches and other civic organizations held pageants, parades, plays and other events to raise awareness and to educate parents and children about good health.
Three years later, Child Health Day was celebrated in every state and the territory of Hawaii. One reporter insisted that “The publicity given to [Child Health Day] was second only to…such events as the Dempsey-Tunney fight, the Lindberg flight, and the World Series.” Child Health Day became a permanent Federal holiday in 1929, though it was moved to the first Monday in October beginning in 1959. To this day, the President makes an annual proclamation of Child Health Day.