Feet for Fighting: Locating Disability And Social Medicine in First World War America
Feet for Fighting (514.2KB)
This article describes the process by which "flat feet" became a well-recognized medical diagnosis and eventually came to be seen as an important indicator of national health during early twentieth-century America. I argue that orthopedic surgeons—a relatively new medical specialty at the time—took a leading role in this process. During the First World War, they standardized diagnostic measures for flat feet as a way to delineate "fit" from "unfit" draftees, rejecting the latter from military service (a practice that persisted for the remainder of the century). But instead of sending the "unfit" home, orthopedic surgeons believed that they could rehabilitate rejected draftees using techniques such as stretching and strengthening exercises in order to make the flatfooted into foot-fit men. After the war, these same surgeons applied their theory of rehabilitation to the industrial workplace, where they supplanted physiologists as the new experts on bodily efficiency, a move that would eventually bring about the science of body mechanics and ergonomics. In the end, I argue that wartime orthopedics serves as an important example of social medicine in practice during the early twentieth century. Orthopedic surgeons contended that physical disability was as much of a threat to national health as germs and believed that debilitating conditions such as flat feet should be prevented and cured for the general betterment of American society.
Social History of Medicine (2007)
Winner of the Roy Porter Memorial Prize Essay