THE GERM OF LAZINESS: Rockefeller Philanthropy and Public Health in the New South by John Ettling

THE GERM OF LAZINESS: Rockefeller Philanthropy and Public Health in the New South

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In 1909, John D. Rockefeller founded the Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease, ""the germ of laziness"" (in the parlance of the time) because a major symptom was extreme lassitude. The Sanitary Commission was so-called not because the infestation, borne from Africa, was spread by poor sanitation, but in emulation of earlier, short-term para-military organizations whose work--Etling notes in this scrupulous and unusual study--was as much educational as medical. The significant new element was philanthropy. Ettling (History, Univ. of Houston) does not confine himself, then, to the conduct and outcome of the five-year campaign--or its well-known role as a spearhead of the public-health movement. He begins with the backgrounds and careers of the principals, all of them men with rural, evangelical roots. First, Charles Wardell Stiles, the German-trained scientist who brought the hookworm problem in the US to light and yet could not--he lacked an MD, he was a ""government man,"" an ""interloper""--achieve corrective action. Second, Frederick T. Gates, the Baptist missionary/educator/administrator hired by Rockefeller (a master at spotting ""the streak of shrewd pragmatism behind the allegiance to high ideals"") to develop and coordinate his early charity programs. And, third, Wickliffe Rose, the progressive Southern educator whose tactful, flexible direction of the Sanitary Commission's work was responsible for its limited immediate success and lasting influence. (Hookworm was not ""eradicated""--Gates' germ had been unfortunate--but Rose quieted suspicions and bolstered local public-health agencies.) Ettling makes a fascinating story of how these three came together with the two Rockefellers (the messianic, ""abrasive"" Stiles never actually met his eventual backers); of the tent-revival conditions under which the Commission conducted its dispensary program (with the result, too, that Gates and Rose succumbed to the revivalist's tendency to judge his success ""by counting the number of self-professed converts""--however temporary); and of the overall campaign as a kickoff for Gates' ""global war on hookworm disease"" (in his mind, ""an unconscious cognate of sin itself"")--via the nascent Rockefeller Foundation. A complex, elegant work, solidly researched and surprisingly readable.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press