Oregon Secretary of State


Fighting the "Venereal Menace"

Line drawing of 6 men in hospital beds with 1 doctor looking over them.
The military was frustrated with efforts of civil authorities to control venereal disease during the war, as the text below this flyer image reveals: "Each of these six soldiers has a venereal disease. Five of them brought their disease into the army from civil life. Only one contracted his disease after arriving at camp; and he probably got it in a community near camp over which civil authorities have control." (OSA, Defense Council Records, Publications and Ephemera, Box 9, Folder 3)

An Unspeakable Problem

While the Oregon Military Police arrested violators of the state's liquor prohibition laws, others were fighting another social problem. Venereal disease was a very delicate subject in the first decades of the 1900s. In many ways so​ciety did not want to acknowledge that promiscuity, prostitution, and other related vices existed. Yet, the results were undeniable. High profile discussion of the problem was more avoidable before the war, but venereal disease was limiting the effectiveness of the armed forces and needed to be addressed head on. As a result the military instituted an education program.

The Oregon Social Hygiene Society

The Oregon Social Hygiene Society, based in Portland, played a significant role in the effort both in Oregon and nationally. The society and the military had reason to be concerned about the "social hygiene" problem. Statistics indicated one out of every 36 men reported for duty at Fort Lewis in Washington already infected with venereal disease. From some localities, the figure reached one in 14 men. Overall, five out of every six soldiers with venereal disease, or "VD," contracted it before entering the service.

Just after war was declared, the society took steps to reach all of the Oregon National Guard units as they were mobilized. The men were provided circulars on the subject and received lectures on the wisdom of avoiding infection.

Helping Develop an Education Plan

The society also offered its assistance to the federal military. Its executive secretary was dispatched to Washington D.C. for about six months to cooperate in the planning "along social hygiene lines" with the armed forces. Fort Lewis, temporary home to many Oregon soldiers, also benefited from its work. The society sent a field representative and one of its lecturers, who managed to reach "approximately the entire group at Camp Lewis...."

As a result of the work at Fort Lewis, the Army planned an education campaign in which a medical officer was dispatched to speak to every group of men inducted into the service. The campaign distributed circulars to "practically every man" as well as posting warning placards on every latrine. The effort was rounded out by the display of the society's "KEEPING FIT" exhibit and the showing of the film "HOW LIFE BEGINS."

Letter head reads "The Oregon Social Hygiene Society, central office, 720 Selling Building, Portland, Oregon."
The Oregon Social Hygiene Society took an active role in developing education and laws to reduce incidences of venereal disease in Oregon and the nation. (OSA, Oregon Defense Council Records, State Historian's Correspondence, Box 1, Folder 16)
Back in Oregon, education continued with a cooperative arrangement between the society and the Army. The Army detailed a medical officer from Fort Lewis to lecture all conscripted men in the state while the society made the arrangements and picked up the tab. Meetings were held in every county seat except for Gold Beach with attendance reaching a robust 40,890.

Attacking the Civilian Problem

Aiming at the issue of law enforcement in the civilian community, the society hired an attorney to work with the state and cities to propose and pass effective laws and ordinances. It targeted health laws with particular focus on the "better control of prostitution and its ramifications." The results included the passage of a number of ordinances by Portland and smaller cities in the state.

As an outgrowth of the stepped up enforcement, a "V.D. hospital" was installed "where cases could be observed and treated." The city of Portland also planned and equipped a "detention hospital" that handled the city's cases as well as some from around the state. Women and girls who were detained at the hospital could work to improve themselves. The society "employed a young lady especially qualified for this kind of work and she has devoted her entire time to rehabilitation work since March 1918."

According to the military, even with the law enforcement efforts of the society and local police, the problem persisted with the civilian world. The armed services had instituted effective education that significantly reduced the problem of contracting VD after entry into the service. It continued to blame civilian communities that "had been afraid to attack the problems of venereal disease...."
Gov. James Withycombe: A gray bearded man in suit and tie.
Governor Withycombe had stern words for young men in Oregon: There is "a nobler purpose than promiscuous indulgence with immoral women."

The Governor Employs Shock Power

Taking up the challenge and using his bully pulpit, Oregon Governor James Withycombe was willing to try anything to make his point about venereal disease in his message "To Oregon Men Called to Arms." In a starkly direct presentation, he employed treason, hatred, shame, and fear of ostracism to wake up his youthful intended audience.

The governor first argued that it was treasonous to contract venereal disease during war. Since the country was mobilizing with "both blood and treasure" to fight the "war-maddened imperialists," everyone needed to contribute. Citing the definition of treason in the U.S. Constitution as giving aid and comfort to the enemy, Withycombe contended that "if a soldier wilfully [sic] injures himself and thereby renders himself unfit for military service, he delivers a blow against this country. If he permits himself to become infected with a dangerous and contagious disease, he deprives the government of his own services and puts in jeopardy the health of all men in the service with whom he may come in contact," thereby giving aid to the enemy and committing treason.

Unafraid to stir up a little hatred for the cause, he deplored the "fiendish devices of war" that Germany had adopted to weaken its enemies: "No act of cruelty seems too horrible if she thinks it will accomplish her purpose. We hear tales that are almost unbelievable in their depravity." Withycombe referred to one report of the enemy sending women and girls infected with syphilis and gonorrhea into cities housing the Allies' soldiers to have sex and render the soldiers unfit for combat.

The governor championed education since "too many of our boys exposed themselves to infection because of ignorance...." Withycombe wanted to use the information taught by the military to reach boys before they went into the service. He wanted to dispel the popular myth that sexual intercourse was "necessary to preserve good health," and to remind boys that there is "a nobler purpose than promiscuous indulgence with immoral women." Praising the military training on the subject, Withycombe noted the need to overcome a common double standard among young men:

He appealed to the boys' sense of shame, reminding them of the grief to parents and loved ones that could follow from the wrong decision. The records of the Army and Navy described conditions, including venereal disease of the soldiers and sailors. What boy would want his parents to know he had been "checked up as a noneffective because of having syphilis or gonorrhea?"

"Venereal Diseases and the War" chart shows oregon with 0.59% incidence of venereal diseases. Idaho 0.76%, Utah 0.79%.
Oregon enjoyed the lowest incidence of VD of all states in the 1st million draftees during the war. The state fell to 10th place for the 2nd million men drafted. (OSA, Oregon Defense Council Records, Publications and Ephemera, Box 9, Folder 1) View statistics (PDF).
The governor warned those who may have contemplated purposefully contracting the disease to avoid service, saying it would not exempt them. The draftee would report to camp where his condition would "be known immediately." Moreover, "instead of being welcomed by comrades in arms, you will be isolated in a hospital and given treatment until you are no longer a menace to other human beings." Adding ostracism to his list, Withycombe described how men in the service "look with contempt" at an infected man: "Today nothing is so unpopular as venereal disease--the boys won't eat with you and they won't bunk with you."

The Oregon Record

According to statistics released by the U.S. Public Health Service, Oregon's record in relation to venereal disease went from stellar to just good. The numbers showed that for the first million draftees, Oregon ranked first nationally with the lowest incidence of VD at 0.59%. In the second million men drafted, the state fell to tenth with an incidence rate of 2.19%. Still, comparatively, the governor must have been cheered by the fact that he didn't sit in the Florida statehouse. It had an incidence rate of 15.63%.


(Oregon State Defense Council Records, Publications and Ephemera, Box 9, Folder 1, 3)