AAUW’s Cancer Education Campaign

October 01, 2013

Today, we are aware of the many benefits of preventive screening for cancer. When detected in its early stages, many forms of cancer are treatable and patients can resume their lives. Modern medicine has given us remarkable advances for which we should all be thankful.

Black-and-white photograph of Kathryn McHale at a writing desk

Kathryn McHale

In the 1930s, AAUW women also realized the importance of early cancer detection.  During a time when the topic of cancer was still considered unmentionable, AAUW Executive and Educational Secretary Kathryn McHale worked alongside Dr. Joseph Colt Bloodgood, a physician who was determined to educate women about the early detection of cancer.  In 1913, Bloodgood founded the American Society for the Control of Cancer, which became the American Cancer Society in 1945.

In 1930, Bloodgood received $1,000 from John Sims, a carpenter from West Virginia whose wife had died of cervical cancer. With those funds, Bloodgood created the Amanda Sims Memorial Fund, a campaign to educate women about the early detection of cancer of the cervix.

At the time, cervical cancer did not receive much attention but was claiming an alarming number of lives. Bloodgood was smart and realized he needed women on his side, or else his message would not get far. So, he enlisted the help of women’s organizations such as AAUW, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Young Women’s Christian Association. He also hired a female nurse, Florence Baker, to serve as the official voice for the campaign.

Dr. Joseph Colt Bloodgood

Dr. Joseph Colt Bloodgood

According to McHale, the decision to partner with Bloodgood was logical; it was “entirely in keeping with [AAUW’s] whole notion of adult education.” The doctor contributed to AAUW publications and wrote informational letters that were distributed to branches. In a June 1932 issue of the AAUW Journal, Bloodgood sang the praises of AAUW members: “University women, because of their educational opportunities, are in a better position than untrained women to understand the principles and details of preventive medicine.” In another AAUW publication, The Month’s Work, he also urged women who were unable to afford a personal physician to find a “proper clinic to go to for prenatal care and periodic pelvic examinations.”

Dr. Bloodgood knew that early detection of cancer saved lives, and that it also made good economic sense. A true pragmatist, he said that if “what we know of preventive methods should really be applied, the people would actually be saved in taxes, fewer hospitals would be needed, [and] there would be a tremendous reduction in the care of people crippled by chronic disease.”

I am amazed by how remarkably advanced, even by today’s standards, AAUW’s 1930s cancer-education campaign seems. Open, frank language was not the norm in the 1930s. Using the word “cancer” was a taboo, let alone acknowledging it as a real problem and suggesting a potential solution. Thankfully, there have been many medical advances since the 1930s, but I think we could still use more McHales and Bloodgoods working together to urge women, who too often take care of others before themselves, to visit their physicians and schedule those important annual examinations and screenings.

Suzanne Gould By:   |   October 01, 2013

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