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Child Health and Welfare in Europe and the United States, 1914–2000

April 15, 2010

By John Stewart

This workshop took place at Glasgow Caledonian University from 13 to 15 January 2010, the vagaries of British transport and weather notwithstanding. The event was financially supported by the Wellcome Trust (via the Enhancement Award held by the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare) and the Economic History Society, with the complex administrative and funding arrangements being ably handled by the Centre’s Outreach/Research Officer, Rhona Blincow. Participants were drawn from universities in Britain, Norway, Spain, Sweden and, via Skype, the USA. This embryonic network derives from discussions that have taken place over a number of years and at a number of locations throughout Europe.

A British hospital's children's ward, 1920. Wellcome Library

An introductory session by Alysa Levene (Oxford Brookes University) on ‘Medicalising the Welfare Child: Recent developments in research’ appropriately set the historiographical scene. A number of themes emerged thereafter. On the issue of hospitals, contributions came from Mary Clare Martin (University of Greenwich) on children’s hospitals in Britain, France and the USA, while Andrea Tanner and Sue Hawkins (Kingston University) described their important project on archiving and accessing the records of hospitalised children in Victorian and Edwardian London and Glasgow. Dealing with the sick child, and attempts to stop children becoming sick, were the topics of papers by William Hubbard (University of Bergen) on Scottish infant mortality, Lawrence Weaver (University of Glasgow) on Glasgow’s contribution to international paediatrics post-1918, and Chris Nottingham and Chris Robinson (Glasgow Caledonian University and the Scottish Government) on child protection in Scotland.

More obviously taking the perspective of children and young people themselves, John Welshman (Lancaster University) discussed his work on evacuation during World War II while Kathleen Jones (Virginia Tech) delivered, via the magic of Skype, her paper on historical and contemporary perspectives on youth suicide in the USA. The Spanish viewpoint came from Enrique Perdiguero (University of Alicante) on child health and welfare under the Franco dictatorship and Josep Barona (University of Valencia) on medicine and maladjustment in the pre-Franco era.

Indeed, the notion of maladjustment and its implications was taken up by a number of participants. Sarah Hayes (University of Exeter) described her research on the maladjusted child in postwar Britain. From Scandinavia, meanwhile, Kari Ludvigsen (University of Bergen) explored the role of psychiatrists in promoting child mental health in Norway from the 1930s to the 1960s, while Karin Zetterqvist Nelson (University of Linköping) examined the development of Swedish child therapy over a similar period. Science, ‘normality’ and surveillance were addressed by John Stewart (Glasgow Caledonian University) in his paper on the notion on ‘normalcy’ in British child guidance, with Astri Andresen (University of Bergen) engaging with the politics of surveillance medicine in respect of Norwegian education.

Finally, Mathew Thomson (University of Warwick) analysed the landscape of the postwar British child from the perspective of psychology and psychological health, and Bengt Sandin (University of Linköping) addressed a broad range of child health issues in his presentation on, inter alia, the political significance of children’s physical and mental wellbeing and children’s rights.

It has often been remarked that the history and meaning of child health has been seriously underexplored by historians, not least in Britain. The Glasgow workshop was, it is to be hoped, an important step towards addressing this gap in our historical understanding. Future meetings of the network are anticipated and discussions are taking place as to how this might be further promoted and expanded. Anyone interested in this field is welcome to contact me.

Professor John Stewart is Director of the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare at Glasgow Caledonian University.

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