Individualised Public Health: a conceptual history of heredity in the Dutch interwar years
Meer, R.M. van der
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This thesis investigates how during the interwar years, Dutch eugenicists, anti-alcohol reformers and sanitary reformers employed the concept of heredity to define degeneration, alcoholism, and tuberculosis as social diseases in need of a collective response. Inspired by Reinhart Koselleck’s conceptual history program, I examine how the explicit attempts to explain heredity in relation to these social problems interact with the Dutch interwar political culture. By means of a detailed analysis of textbooks and periodicals, as well as inaugural lectures, propaganda material, and specific dissertations, I identify four general trends in Dutch public health discourse centred around social diseases. (i) Throughout the interwar period, public health reformers came to agree that acquired characteristics were not inheritable and that environmental influences acting on the developing body could not alter the genetic blueprint. (ii) Dutch public health reformers increasingly employed heredity to discuss social diseases in relation to development instead of reproductive transmission. (iii) The strongly biologised Dutch interwar public health discourse went along with a big emphasis on environmental—and hence malleable—influences in the constitution of social diseases. (iv) Dutch public health reformers conceptualised the collective as a series of equal individuals. Revealing a focus on individual developmental health and a practical orientation towards improving the environment, I claim that this individualised public health discourse reflected and contributed to the Dutch egalitarian political culture during the interwar years, in which health was regarded as a private matter and collective solutions to social diseases were decentralised and organised bottom-up rather than top-down.