Social Hygiene Movement

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1913

John Rockefeller Jr. poured himself into the philanthropic activities begun by his father, and is responsible for the creation or development of several signature Rockefeller organizations. These include the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, the General Education Board, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He was also a catalyst for the “social-hygiene movement” of the early twentieth century that targeted venereal disease and brought topics of sexuality to public consciousness.

Following his service in 1910 on a special grand jury investigating “white slavery” (prostitution) in New York City, Rockefeller established, largely with his own money, an independent organization he called the Bureau of Social Hygiene. His aim was to combat delinquency, crime, and sex trafficking. The bureau was active from 1911 to 1933, awarding education and research grants aimed at controlling prostitution, drug use, juvenile delinquency, and related social ills, plus the crimes and corruption that followed in their wake. For a period, the organization funded studies of the biological and social factors that influence human sexual conduct. Rockefeller provided five and a half million dollars to the bureau during its two decades of activity.

After Rockefeller attended a conference in Buffalo, New York, on the social problems of prostitution and attendant venereal disease, he funded the uniting of several organizations into the American Social Hygiene Association. The association resolved to control and treat diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea through public education.

The association worked with the War Department to promote a very aggressive anti-venereal disease campaign within the U.S. military. It also helped to establish venereology as a branch of medicine and coordinated national efforts to treat patients, conduct medical studies, and develop school curricula on sexual health. In later years, the Rockefeller Foundation took over some of this work from the bureau and John Jr.’s personal giving.