Friday, March 22, 2019

Exams of Franco-American WWI Draftees Show the Poorest State of Public Health in the U.S.

On February 20, 1923, Charles B. Davenport of the Eugenics Record Office in Long Island, NY, wrote a letter to Henry F. Perkins, eugenics point man at the University of Vermont. “Did you know,” wrote Davenport to Perkins, “that in the study of defects found in drafted men, Vermont stood at or near the top of the list as having precisely or nearly the highest defect rate for quite a series of defects? This result I ascribe to the French Canadian constituents of the population which, I had other reasons for believing, to contain an undue proportion of defectives.”1

Davenport knew well the “study of defects found in drafted men” because he co-wrote the detailed statistical report on the subject for the Senate Committee on Military Affairs.2  This 1919 report of more than 350 pages compiles data from medical examinations of 2.7 million men, 18 to 30 years old, drafted during the First World War. Examiners reported cases of what they regarded as mental or physical “defects,” which included a wide range of diseases and conditions from heart disease, to asthma, to blindness, to flat feet, to obesity, to drug addiction.

The report cuts the data three ways. First, it reports the distribution of these “defects” among the states. It then divides most of the states into smaller regions that reflect different economies: agricultural, manufacturing, mining, or commuter regions. There is also a similar series with the data grouped by environment or terrain: mountain, desert, maritime regions, etc. In these analyses, the researchers attempt to group the various health issues according to the draftee's occupation or milieu.
"Defects Found in Drafted Men." 1919 report by Albert G. Love  and eugenics supporter Charles B. Davenport
1919 report by Albert G. Love
and eugenics supporter Charles B. Davenport

Then comes what the researchers term “the racial series.” These “races” include groupings like “mountain whites,” “Indians” (Native Americans) and “Mexicans.” There is also a number of breakout groups of “foreign born whites.” “Group 19” is the French Canadian “racial” group.

This group was created, like the other groups, by aggregating areas with high concentrations of French-Canadians, where the latter constituted more than 10 percent of the population. All such regions were in New England, in the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The French-Canadian group had “the highest defect rate” of any of the “racial” groupings in the U.S. (266). Areas with high concentrations of French-Canadians led the lists in a range of health problems associated with low socioeconomic status including alcoholism, malnutrition, and obesity. 

Presenting their findings on “Group 19,” the researchers state:
The French Canadian group shows an extraordinary excess of defects in various important respects, such as tuberculosis, spinal curvature, deaf-mutism, mental deficiency and psychoses, refractive errors [myopia and other eyesight issues], otitis media [inflammatory diseases of the ear], defective hearing, asthma, bad teeth, hernia, deficient size of chest, and height and underweight. The sections of which the French Canadians form a predominant factor are among the poorest from the military standpoint (46).
The French-Canadian group led the U.S. in alcoholism. Alcoholism was high across New England in 1919 and not only in the areas with high concentrations of French-Canadians. Of the ten states with the highest numbers of alcoholics among drafted men, five of them were in New England (86, Table 12). However, in the parts of New England with large French-Canadian populations, rates of alcoholism were many times higher than elsewhere. The rate of alcoholism among young men in the French-Canadian parts of New England was 0.91 per 1000 persons. By contrast, populations such as the Germans/Austrians and Russians in the U.S., stereotypically thought to enjoy a drink, had rates of alcoholism of 0.38 and 0.21 per thousand respectively (269, Table 106).

The French-Canadian grouping also had the highest rates, by far, of men judged “underheight” and “underweight” (294, Tables 180, 181). They also had the highest incidence of diagnosed malnutrition except for “mountain whites” and “Indians” living in “sparsely settled” places (294, Table 182).  Anemia, a condition often caused by vitamin or mineral deficiency, was found to be “exceptionally high in the French Canadian section(s) (305).” At the same time, the highest rates of obesity in the U.S. were found in places with large French-Canadian populations (272, Table 114).

The “French-Canadian immigrants” were also found to suffer from a high proportion of “defective physical development.” But exactly how this condition is defined and how it differs from “underweight” is unclear even to the researchers. However, the rate of “total defective development and nutrition” among the French-Canadian group was many times higher than that of any other group listed: 85.26 persons per 1000, as compared with the next highest numbers among Scottish-Americans and “mountain whites,” with about one-half the rate of the French-Canadian group. The researchers own that “defective development” “is due to a variety of causes (33-34). Since Davenport was a eugenics supporter, the report often wishes to find a “congenital” or “racial” cause for some alleged “defect.” But it admits that “defective physical development” has environmental components.
The group [showing ‘defective physical development’] has a great importance for social therapeutics, since it is largely due to unhygienic methods of living, although in considerable part due, also, to congenital defects…. A center for defective physical development is found in the States which center around Chattanooga, and it seems probable that this area is largely determined by the presence of hookworm infection. There is another center in New England, and this seems to be controlled very largely by the French-Canadian immigrants, who show a high rate of defective physical development (33-34).
“Unhygienic methods of living” are blamed for the undernourished conditions of young men in the mill towns, and not the socioeconomic conditions that had turned the rural poor of Québec into a neglected labor pool destined for U.S. mills and factories. Whether the causes were congenital or environmental, many of the young men who came from the mill town milieu were no longer physically fit even for the trenches.

Having found that the French-Canadian group scored highest in a wide range of alleged “defects,” the authors then attribute the poor showing of some New England states to high concentrations of French-Canadians. 

Rhode Island had the highest “defect rate” overall. Conditions in which Rhode Island stands first or second are: Alcoholism, obesity, neurosis, total for myopia and defective vision (cause not stated), hemorrhoids, bronchitis, deformities of appendages and trunk, atrophy of muscles of the appendages, underheight, and underweight (41). Why does Rhode Island stand at or near the top in many “defects,” per Love and Davenport?
It is largely because of the defective or nonresistant stock which has been drawn to this the most urban of all the States—that in which the population is most generally engaged in manufacturing. While one may not ascribe the defects to the occupation, it is probable that the occupation has attracted stock with defects or susceptible to them. Next to Rhode Island stands Vermont....It is surprising in what a number of defects the small State of Vermont leads. The reason for this is probably because of the presence in Vermont of a large number of French Canadians in whom the defect rate is particularly high (41).
Love and Davenport ascribe Rhode Island’s high “defect rate” to “defective stock” attracted by the state’s manufacturing, while Vermont’s is attributed to its “large number of French-Canadians.” However, elsewhere in the report, the authors find that these two states “have this in common that they contain a large proportion of Canadian French (149).” More than once, they claim that the reason for these states' poor showing is the French-Canadian presence. 

The authors discuss some problems with the hypothesis that New England’s health woes were due to “defective” French-Canadians. They observe that New Hampshire had a larger percentage of French-Canadians than either Rhode Island or Vermont, and yet it was in the middle of the pack as regards alleged “defects.” The authors conclude that the “high position of Rhode Island and Vermont” with respect to “defects” is “due to a combination of...three factors...the thoroughness of the examinations made by local boards, the intelligence and care exercised at Camp Devens [where New England draftees were examined] and the high percentage of French Canadians in the population (149).

Conditions that were environmental, a consequence of living in fetid mill towns, are ascribed to “congenital” causes. These conclusions were then used  by eugenics proponents, like Davenport and Vermont’s Henry Perkins, to class the French Canadians as an "inferior" breed in their racial hierarchies. Since French-Canadians in the mill towns were poor, they faced public health challenges; these challenges were then essentialized by eugenics proponents and made a part of the “racial” (their word) makeup of the French Canadian people.

Among the alleged “defects” that stemmed from life in the mill towns were problems with eyesight, hearing, and respiratory issues. And these health problems appear already in young men mostly in their twenties. High rates of obesity, malnutrition, and the off-the-chart rate of alcoholism show a community that’s been marginalized by the society of its day and relegated to an underclass status. Such a status, in all times and places, is hazardous to one’s health.

French-Canadians of New England in WWI uniforms
My maternal grandfather (right)
and his brother in their WWI uniforms
The data from drafted men paints a shocking portrait of the Franco-Americans in the mill towns in the early 20th century. They emerge as among the most disadvantaged groups in the U.S. from a public health perspective. When compared with groups recognized as poor or historically disadvantaged, such as mountain whites, rural Native Americans, and Mexican-Americans, the data shows the tragically poor condition of public health in the New England mill towns where the French-Canadians predominated.

Both of my grandfathers were in the military in the World War One era and they were both born and raised in the areas Love and Davenport have aggregated to create their French-Canadian “racial” group. Their data provides insight into the world of my grandparents, the places where they were born and raised. My father was born less than a decade after the report on drafted men was issued, in one of the heavily French-Canadian areas of Maine. The “defective” French-Canadian men described here were relatives, friends and neighbors of my parents and grandparents. This report captures the stark reality of the mill town milieu that formed previous generations of Franco-Americans, the forbears of most of the two million French-Canadian descendants who still live in New England. No surprise that little of what happened there was passed down to younger generations.

For more on eugenics and Franco-Americans see Chapter 13 of my book A Distinct Alien Race.
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Notes
1. David Vermette, A Distinct Alien Race (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2018), 256.
2. U.S. Congress, Senate, Defects Found in Drafted Men: Statistical Information Compiled from the Draft Records, Prepared under the direction of the Surgeon General, M.W. Ireland, by Albert G. Love, M.D. and Charles B. Davenport, Printed for the use of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, 66th Congress, 1st Session, 1919. Parenthetical page numbers and table numbers refer to this report.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Upcoming Presentations and Events


2019
Friday, April 26, 2019, 1:00 P.M.
Moderating a Panel: “Franco Americans, Acadians, and the Great War”
University of Maine
Orono, ME
Crossland Hall
This panel of historians will examine the Franco-American experience of WWI. Panel includes Patrick Lacroix, Mark Paul Richard and Elisa Sance.
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April 26-28, 2019
Annual Gathering of Franco-American Writers and Artists
University of Maine, Orono, ME
Crossland Hall
I will be speaking as part of a weekend of events, including readings and presentations by numerous creative Franco-Americans. Prior registration required.
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Tuesday, April 30, 2019, 7:00 P.M.
Gulf of Maine Books
134 Maine Street, Brunswick, ME
I will discuss the case of Brunswick's Cabot Mill and what really happened during the tenure of the textile industry in the town: the influence of Boston capital, the importation of a large labor force from Quebec, and how it changed the town's demographics.
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Friday, May 3, 2019, 6:00 P.M.
Franco-American Center
St. Anselm’s College, Dana Center
100 Saint Anselm Drive, Manchester, NH
“Fears of Conspiracy: How were French-Canadian Immigrants Received in New England?”
I will discuss the reception of Franco-Americans in New England, their concepts of citizenship, and the outlandish conspiracy theory that surrounded the newcomers from French Canada.
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Sunday May 5, 2019, 1:30 P.M.
American-French Genealogical Society
78 Earle Street, Woonsocket, RI
“A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans”
I will discuss the reception of Franco-Americans in New England, including the conspiracy theory that surrounded the newcomers from French Canada.
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Tuesday May 7, 2019, 4:00 P.M.
Boivin Center
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth
Dartmouth, MA
285 Old Westport Road, North Dartmouth, MA 02747
“Couldn't Have Done It Without Us: How Franco-Americans Saved the U.S. Economy”
Textiles were the U.S.'s largest 19th c. industry. After the Civil War, French-Canadians became the largest cohort in this industry. This presentation will discuss the economic importance of the French-Canadian influx. It will focus not on famous names, but on the importance of the rank and file Franco-American workers who saved not just the region's but also the nation's economy.  
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October 7, 2019, 6:30 P.M.
Jacob Edwards Library
236 Main Street, Southbridge, MA
"The Other Border: French-Canadian Immigration to New England"
This presentation discusses the historic opposition between New France and New England, and how this conflict continued, by various means, until the dawn of the 20th century. This presentation will discuss where the French-Canadians of New England came from, the circumstances of their coming across the border, and how they were received after they came to the U.S.
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Saturday, October 12, 2019, 3:00 P.M.
"Bridging The Gaps"
Biddeford Cultural & Heritage Center

Biddeford Middle School, 25 Tiger Way, Biddeford, ME
"The Other Border: French-Canadian Immigration to New England"
This presentation discusses the historic opposition between New France and New England, and how this conflict continued, by various means, until the dawn of the 20th century. This presentation will discuss where the French-Canadians of New England came from, the circumstances of their coming across the border, and how they were received after they came to the U.S.
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Wednesday, October 16, 2019, 4:30 P.M.
Salon of la Maison Français
Assumption College
500 Salisbury Street, Worcester, MAWorcester, MA
“Fears of Conspiracy: How were French-Canadian Immigrants Received in New England?”
I will discuss the reception of Franco-Americans in New England, their concepts of citizenship, and the outlandish conspiracy theory that surrounded the newcomers from French Canada.
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Thursday, October 17, 2019, 6:30 P.M.
Mayflower Society
4 Winslow Street, Plymouth, MA
"The Other Border: French-Canadian Immigration to New England"
This presentation discusses the historic opposition between New France and New England, and how this conflict continued, by various means, until the dawn of the 20th century. This presentation will discuss where the French-Canadians of New England came from, the circumstances of their coming across the border, and how they were received after they came to the U.S.
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2020
April 21, 2020
Worcester State University, Worcester, MA

April 23, 2020
Nashua Public Library, Nashua, NH
Co-Sponsored by Club Richelieu

April 24-26th, 2020
Annual Gathering of Franco-American Writers and Artists
Franco-American Centre, University of Maine, Orono
I will be one presenter among many others at this annual event for Franco-American writers and artists.

April 27, 2020
Franco-American Collection of the USM/LA College, Lewiston, ME
“Fears of Conspiracy: How were French-Canadian Immigrants Received in New England?”
I will discuss the reception of Franco-Americans in New England, their concepts of citizenship, and the outlandish conspiracy theory that surrounded the newcomers from French Canada.

October 2, 3,4, 2020
Fédération québécoise des Sociétés de généalogie
Lévis, Québec
How did economic development shift the genealogical profile of the Chaudière-Appalaches region? How did the local demographic composition bring about changes in the society?
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More about my book
A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans