From Private Tragedy to Public Health: Public Health and the Rhetorics of Responsibility

Open Access
Kuperavage, Jessica Lauren
Graduate Program:
Communication Arts and Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
September 27, 2013
Committee Members:
  • Jeremy Engels, Dissertation Advisor
  • James Hogan, Committee Member
  • Rachel Annette Smith, Committee Member
  • Susan Merrill Squier, Committee Member
  • rhetoric
  • communication
  • public health
  • health campaigns
  • health policy
  • infant mortality
  • maternal mortality
While biopolitics is firmly intertwined with governance at the beginning of the twenty-first century, at the dawn of the twentieth, federal surveillance and management of the population’s health was in its infancy. This study examines the ways Progressive Era reformers disseminated information about preventive health measures and made their case for a deeper governmental commitment for the health of its people. The picture that emerges is the rhetorical development of large-scale, federal biopolitics in the United States. This study explores this development from the perspective of a series of health campaigns and reforms that addressed infant and maternal mortality between 1911 and 1921. It consists of four case studies, each of which captures a phase of this development: promoting individual agency, implementing risk appeals, assigning responsibility, and renegotiating the limits of government. By examining health campaigns, a media campaign, and contemporary Congressional testimony, the study creates a genealogy of one of the most significant health transitions in American history and the precedent for modern health reform. Ultimately, reformers’ calls for governmental investment in health and the overwhelmingly positive response from the American public transformed the expression of sickness and health in 20th century America.