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Health, Work and Masculinity, c.1800-1950

Conference Report

On 10-11 December 2005 the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick hosted a workshop on ‘Health, Work and Masculinity, c.1800-1950’. This event provided a platform for discussion of some of the ways in which the concept of ‘masculinity’ can contribute to historical understanding of the complex relationship between gender and occupational health over the increasingly industrialised nineteenth and twentieth centuries and within a variety of national contexts. A total of fourteen papers were presented at the workshop, which was organised by Hilary Marland, Vicky Long and Mathew Thomson (Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick), and Martin Dinges (Institut für Geschichte der Medizin der Robert Bosch Stiftung, Stuttgart).

The question of how to deal with masculinity as a means of uncovering experiences and explaining the behaviour of male workers in the past emerged as one of the central themes of this workshop, and lively debate surrounded some of the methodological problems and possibilities in placing masculinity as a conceptual tool at the centre rather than the periphery of analytic focus when dealing with perceptions, representations and experiences of illness, health and body in the workplace.

The familiar problem of source recurred with regard to consideration of how to use masculinity as an ontological basis for historical and sociological analysis of male health behaviour (Meuser), and also how to relate gender identity or, more specifically, ‘the practice of being men’ to the wider social/cultural expectations and mores inherent within, adapted by, or imposed upon particular workplace cultures. Discussion centred upon the theoretical and methodological challenges involved in attempting to unearth workers’ practices and responses, locating individual and personal testimonies whilst at the same time extricating prescriptive ideals from actual conduct.

In negotiating this division between representation and social reality, a number of papers explored personal narratives of body, disease and sickness. Whether soldiers writing letters home to their families during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71 (Richter), letters between two male workers and their wives during years of separation in war-torn Germany (Schweig), or through close reading of workers’ attitudes to illness and health in nineteenth-and early twentieth-century German autobiography (Schmidt), such approaches allowed a more intimate view of the distinctly gendered nature of health behaviours and practices, providing unmediated, individuated testimonies of men and women as they sought to explain and control the vagaries of body and mind in the pursuit and preservation of wellness.

Another common theme and discussion point was the recognition of male workers’ agency in modifying and sometimes resisting medical intervention, a defiance that highlighted the interpretive significance of class and hierarchy in the many and varied workplace cultures under consideration over the course of the workshop. The extent to which the operation of class could explain male reluctance to embrace medical advice or examination remained an open question.

Some papers looked at particular occupational health controversies from ‘shuttle-kissing’ and cotton spinners (Melling and Dale) to anthrax among British textile workers (Carter), inviting discussion of nineteenth-and twentieth-century medical surveillance of men and women and the problem of who or which groups in society were privileged with a voice in these health debates. Could twentieth-century industrial welfarism be viewed as the infiltration of the middle class into working-class spaces, an effort at the reformation or ‘cultural re-fabrication’ of the young male worker (Melling in reference to Long’s paper) and to what extent did such reformist agendas reflect actual employer and medical provision?

In charting the entry of psychological specialisms in twentieth-century understandings of occupational health, such as psychological conceptions of risk behaviour and male ‘accident proneness’ in Switzerland and Germany (Lengwiler), or the problem of the ‘industrial misfit’ in British inter-war industrial psychological literature (Whitelaw), the assertion of expertise both within and beyond the factory gates and the question of what motivated different specialist groups in their scrutiny of the industrial worker became a pertinent discussion point. Whether tracing the contours of political regulatory involvement in the workplace, organisational and social response to medical initiatives, or legal and trade union compensation battles, the industrial male body became a focus of professional interest and the locus upon which a variety of occupational health and safety debates centred (Melling, Dale and Bufton).

The propensity of middle-class (professional or lay) observers to comment upon and criticise working-class lifestyles and behaviour, along with the historical specificity of gendered notions about privacy, hygiene, shame, embarrassment, cleanliness and self-control allowed for analysis of working-class interaction with medical authority, a relationship which often blurred the boundary between what could be regarded as public and private in examination of ideas and practices of health (Dale and Melling).

Though most papers concentrated upon industrial workers within British and European national contexts, several papers found the soldier-as-worker a fruitful source for analysis through the personal testimonies already outlined, and also in relation to institutional provision of health care for Indian troops in British India (Sehrawat). The number of papers focussing upon the industrial context highlighted the need to look beyond the factory, at other sites of masculinity and health, perhaps taking into account white-collar and agricultural workers. The influence of age, religion and education were singled out as themes requiring greater elaboration, and age was particularly emphasised in this respect though touched upon in a paper which dealt with statistical evidence of mortality and morbidity amongst elderly workers in late Habsburg Vienna (Weigl), and another which focussed upon British boy labour and Industrial Welfare provision in World War One (Long).

The role of women and female socialisation in influencing masculine health practices, where social expectations of appropriate ‘manly’ behaviour impacted upon actual conduct was highlighted as another aspect in need of further attention, along with the need for awareness of the ways in which men created hierarchy amongst themselves, differentiating and delineating by trade, skill and locality, rather than solely along class lines.

Overall, the workshop provided participants with the opportunity to explore the gender politics of disease, perceptions of health and illness and their relationship to work in an internationally comparative forum, and allowed for the discussion of, among other things, the kinds of stories and explanations that existed about certain occupational diseases and how they affected and were interpreted by workers as well as by various professional groups, inviting consideration of the workplace as a site of protection for male health where historiography has tended to focus on its potential for harm.

Contrasting geographical points of reference worked to illumine the way in which industrial and political movements, economics, the decline of the apprenticeship system, mechanisation and the relationship between man and machine (Reinarz), along with conceptualisations and practices of skill translated differently not only according to historical moment but also by nationality. Themes of commonality and difference across continents were continually emphasised throughout the workshop, pointing to potentially rewarding future directions in the scholarship of occupational health, where geographically and culturally distinct practices of work and health intersect and refract, allowing historians new ways of getting at an old problem: that of revealing how men and women in the past shaped and responded to ideas of health and wellness, and what this meant for their experience of labour.

Brooke Whitelaw


Health work