Growing Up Healthy in the 20th Century

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Introduction MP-1977.76.163 VIEW-2943 VIEW-23307 M22458 N-0000.72 M981.52.1 MP-0000.589.392 M2000.41.60


Nathalie Lampron, 2005

At the turn of the 20th century, one child in four in Quebec died by the age of one; that was more than anywhere else in Canada or even North America. Cities, which had begun to expand in the late 1800s, were now growing faster and faster. In the densely populated working-class neighbourhoods of these cities, many of the dwellings were squalid. It was an environment in which overcrowding was exacerbated by lack of hygiene, polluted air, and often tainted water and milk, and in which infants were dying of diarrhea or contagious diseases, especially in summer. Something had to be done!

Various steps were taken to halt this scourge. In the first quarter of the 20th century, public health campaigns encouraged mothers to try to improve their children's living conditions. Two essentials were emphasized: cleanliness and fresh air. The questionable quality of water and milk was also a major issue. Filtering and treating water and pasteurizing milk were among the measures implemented. They had a direct effect in reducing the infant mortality rate in the first 30 years of the century.

Towards the end of the 19th, but especially in the early 20th century, the first children's hospitals opened. Pediatrics gradually became a recognized medical specialty. Prevention was a large part of caring for children: vaccination programs considerably reduced the rate of contagious diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis and polio. A growing number of scientists were concerned with children's health, studying their physiological and psychological development. This new knowledge led to the creation of early-childhood development programs and educational games and toys -- innovations made possible by rapid technological change, especially after the Second World War. In short, improved public health and advances in technology, science and especially medicine had a major impact on children's health and development.