Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

The Health of Nations: Public Health and the Social Reproduction of the Working Class in Canada and Britain, 1900-20

Document type Thesis
Author Sears, Alan
Degree Ph.D., Sociology
Publisher University of Warwick; Warwick, UK
Date 1988
Pages 421 pages


The first two decades of the twentieth century saw a dramatic period of innovation and expansion in public health programmes in Britain and Canada. This thesis argues that this period of growth and change in public health was one aspect of a major reorientation of social policy. This reorientation had two major features. First, the national working classes of Britain, Canada and other countries were increasingly delimited through immigration controls and similar means of regulating international mobility. Secondly, new social programmes were developed which attempted to improve the physical, mental and moral condition of these delimited working classes, on the basis that their well-being was the foundation of national productivity. Public health played a major role in both the delimitation and improvement of national working classes. In Canada, the first major programme of immigration controls was introduced in this period, centering around the selection or rejection of immigrants on the basis of medical inspection conducted according to public health criteria. In both Britain and Canada, new public health programmes were developed which aimed to improve the condition of the working class. This was to be accomplished primarily through home visiting programmes which attempted through education and Inspection to establish standards for the domestic labour of women as mothers and home-makers. This thesis examines the contribution of public health to this reorientation of social policy primarily through the analysis of the theoretical work of key policy-makers as reported in professional journals and government documents. These officials displayed a keen sociological understanding of the broader significance of their activities in the development of a productive national working class prepared for work or war. Indeed, they understood clearly that the health of nations is an important basis of the wealth of nations.