Fellow Fridays: Let’s Get Medical!

October 7, 2017 12:18 am Published by


This week on Fellow Friday, Alicia finds a textbook meant for intermediate level students from 1889 in the Heritage Museum’s library collection. Let’s go back to school and learn about what young people learned about physiology! Just so you know, there is discussion of alcoholism in this week’s blog, so if that’s something that bothers you, you might want to check back in next week.

 Happy Fellow Friday, everybody! As you all know, I’m in a graduate school program at Western Michigan University right now, and as you’d probably guess, I have to do a lot of reading. I do quite a bit of reading about history, but I don’t have a lot of time for reading just for the fun of reading, which is one of my favorite things to do. So, for this week, I thought I’d do some light reading and take a look at an 1889 textbook on anatomy, physiology, and hygiene. It’s meant for the “intermediate” level, which can be interpreted today as roughly, 5th-8th grades: today’s middle school students.

Just like my pre-teen peers and my historical peers who read this book in the 1880’s, I learned about health- basic anatomy, nutrition, and hygiene in a section of my education. After flipping through the pages of this text, though, I noticed something off. Just about every page included a negative statement about alcohol or tobacco use, regardless of the page’s contents. I went back to read the preface, and gained some insight on why the authors pushed this rhetoric so intensely: the publishers of this textbook series were the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

Front cover of the textbook.

The NWCTU, formed in 1873 and still an active organization today, is a collective of women who aim to enact moral reform laws through applying Christian doctrine to various personal/moral causes, such as temperance, worker’s rights, and women’s suffrage. The purpose of their organization, as stated in their constitution, was to “Create a sober and pure world by abstinence, purity, and evangelical Christianity”. Their most notable successes and contributions in American legal history are to the creation of the 18th amendment, (i.e., the prohibition of sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages) as well as their major contributions to the women’s suffrage movement.

One of their earlier achievements, pre-18th amendment, was the institution of pro-temperance education for the American public school system. This textbook is the physical evidence of the NWCTU’s successes, and the organization’s causes are evident throughout the entire text. Every chapter, regardless of what it’s about, always comes back to the effect of tobacco and alcohol use on the particular chapter’s subject, and the language used in these sections are heavily slanted towards temperance. This makes sense when the book’s publisher is considered, as the first page reads:

“The above [the outline of the 3 texts in this series] are the series originally prepared (as their general title indicates) to supply the demand created for the laws for temperance instruction in public schools in the United States. They were written by experts under the supervision of the Scientific Department of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, published by the instigation of the same, and have been carefully revised from time to time, under the same supervision, to keep them abreast with the latest teachings of science.”


Medical illustration of a spine.

The book contains what you’d normally expect from a health textbook: information on proper nutrition and medical illustrations of what various bones and muscular structures look like. Comparatively, these normal sections are small in size when paired with the information on the dangers of narcotics like alcohol, tobacco and opiates. It is, somewhat to my surprise, very informational both on the subjects of how alcohol/tobacco are made, and exactly why they can be harmful to the human body.

Medical illustrations from the textbook.

One of my favorite sections is in the chapter on maintaining proper body temperature, where the author brings up the heroic example of Adam Ayles, an Arctic explorer, and a man who, according to the NWCTU, lived a pure life and who exemplified the ideals of temperance.

“Until lately, the explorer who had gone nearest to the north pole was an Englishman named Adam Ayles. He was proud of being able to say there had never been a drop of alcohol in his body. When in the extreme cold of those regions, he bore the hard work of sledging and hunting much better than the men who used liquor now and then. Many of those who drank liquor became sick and helpless. When urged to drink liquor, Adam Ayles replied bravely: ‘No! when a boy, I promised my mother never to touch it; and, if I perish in this ice, I will keep my word.’ He returned to England alive and well.”

Inscription on the inside back cover.

On a heavier note, this text goes into intense detail about the horrors of drinking alcohol, as well as addiction as a whole. This section of the text that surprised me, as it includes a very blatant discussion of the relationship between heredity and alcoholism, partially shown here.

            “Not only property, but faces and character are inherited. Our lives are very closely linked with those of our ‘blood relations,’ and evil tendencies, as well as good impulses, descend from them to us. Over in the poorhouse, is a man who does not know so much as most children four years old. He can not learn to read or write; he is an idiot. And this is because he is the child of drinking parents whose poisoned lifeblood tainted his own. Many men and women are insane, because they inherit disordered bodies and minds, caused by the drinking habits of their parents; and the descendants of ‘moderate drinkers’ suffer in this way, as well as those of the drunkard.”

Obviously, this is incredibly harsh on the children of alcoholics, and by today’s standards is an unfair damnation of those children’s potential. Today, this kind of language is considered to be victim blaming, and is harmful to children and families who are descendent from alcoholic parents, and modern textbooks would hopefully aim to present this heavy material in a more positive tone. That being said, alcoholism as a genetic disease was a somewhat new concept in the late 19th century, and comparatively, NWCTU did handle it progressively for the time. Studying this text proved to be a fascinating look into how 19th century public education looked, as well as the era’s stances on issues we still face today.

This has been your weekly Fellow Friday. See you next week!