Fist Of History

July, 2015Archive for

Why you have to be careful with history – the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918

Monday, July 27th, 2015


I’m a sucker for “pop history” and I make it a point to read interesting looking books when they come up, doubly so when they are focused on United States history.  I grabbed the edition of the Untold History of the United States for young readers, to enjoy a quick read and get a handle on the material being presented to teenage readers.  One item in particular I found interesting was the report that in 1918 to help deal with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the United States, the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 was passed that allowed “loose women” to be forcibly detained for examination for STIs and forcibly quarantined in the event of their being found to have an STI till it was cured.  The author claimed that over “20,000 women were so detained” – a factoid I found repeated on various websites talking about the act.


Now the US did launch a sizable media campaign against STIs during World War I, including efforts like the lovely poster above, and it appears probable that women were detained under the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918, but if you dig below the surface outrage you’ll find a more complex picture.  The Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 actually was one of the first federal block grants for public health research, a funding bill that included a sizable chunk of money distributed to various states to study STI spread, treatments, and provide education about STIs.  The grant required state boards of health that took the money to have their state legislators pass laws that met several minimal requirements including:

“The spread of venereal diseases [STIs] should be declared unlawful”

“Provision to be made for control of infected persons who do not cooperate in protecting others from infection”

“The travel of venereally infected persons within the State to be controlled by State boards of health by definite regulations that will conform in general to the interstate quarantine regulations”

All nasty provisions and, probably, all enforced against female prostitutes or other women suspected of “loose morals.”


The problem though, is that this is not a clean story of “evil federal laws passed that incarcerated women with STIs” as the book above, its original documentary, and online sources would like to argue.  Instead it is a patchwork of laws and enforcement actions undertaken by states that voluntarily took money from the federal government.  Therefore these actions need to be examined on a state-by-state basis, a more detailed and demanding analysis that would require a more careful examination of local histories, archives, and realities.  It also though changes the narrative from “evil federal expansion of powers” which the original book presented it as and instead shifts it towards “states, with incentives, using the far broader powers to arrest individuals for activities we today find uncomfortable to consider crimes.”


My key point to all this is actually pretty simple – the act did exist but its reality is more complicated and requires a more careful discussion than sources put forward.  To my eye the larger issue in this is the broader authority states have to pass laws such as this, and how in the 1910s and 1920s it was socially acceptable for such regulations to be passed by states.  It ties into broader, and less comfortable, discussions that impact us today about federalism and state power versus the more constrained federal power, as well as the position of governments in the space of regulating public morality and public health.

But that doesn’t square with a nice “evil federal government” story so the nuance is lost in the interest of shock value.

On an unrelated note, I think that last STI poster is my personal favorite.

Sources:  Google Books Landmark Legislation entry mentioning the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918, actual text of the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 at JSTOR, article that mentions the law by a professor of law at Duke University, NIH timeline entry confirming the passage and high-level purpose of the law