Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105/Section071/Walter Raleigh Parker

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Walter Raleigh Parker
BornCirca 1893
DiedNovember 9, 1982
OccupationPhysician and County Health doctor
SpouseMary Ella Copeland

Overview[edit | edit source]

Walter Raleigh Parker lived in North Carolina during the twentieth century, and at the time the life history was written in 1939, he was the county health doctor (also known as a Public Health Director) for Farthington County [Northampton County].[1][2]

Background[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Parker was born in Beoman County [Hertford County], North Carolina. He had relatives who were doctors and inspired him to study medicine. Being a doctor also fulfilled his interest in helping people.[3] He graduated from medical school in 1916, shortly before the United States of America joined World War I. After graduating, Parker volunteered for the military, serving as an Army doctor in several domestic Army camps during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.[4]

Adult Life[edit | edit source]

After being discharged from the Army in 1919, Parker married Mary Ella Copeland and had three children.[5] He operated his private, rural medical practice in Wayland [Woodland] from 1919 until 1937 when he became the County Health doctor for Farthington County. Parker worked with community issues such as abortion and birth control, poverty and malnutrition, and diseases such as venereal disease and tuberculosis. He regularly interacted with the North Carolina Eugenics Board to initiate sterilization for patients said to be mentally or physically deficient. Parker oversaw health programs for Farthington County. He ran monthly maternity and infancy clinics that gave out information and health care, venereal disease testing, and successful tuberculosis testing and treatment. He was also active in his community as a member of the local Ruritan Club and served on the county Board of Education.[6]

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Eugenics in Early Twentieth Century America[edit | edit source]

           As America's population rose, so did cases of mental illness, immigrant populations, and criminal acts. A group of scientists and activists called eugenicists proposed initiatives to eliminate unwanted characteristics from America’s citizens. In her article “A More Perfect Union: Eugenics in America,” Miriam Markfield laid out the pathway to acceptance of eugenics in America. It started with claims and evidence that supported social hierarchies related to familial background, education, and behavior. American scientists, politicians, and leaders then started institutions that isolated unfit individuals in institutions, changed immigration laws, and enacted laws that legalized forcible sterilization. The most radical eugenics advocates had a goal of eradicating the existing unfavorable populations.[7] They not only believed that life should be centered around “the survival of the fittest,”[8], but that solely the fit individuals should reproduce, and in the extreme, survive. Proponents of the theory argued that to support individuals that “corrupted” the population or did not advance society was to continue to subject America to the “terrific cost…of this dead weight of human waste”.[9]

Disease in the Early Twentieth Century[edit | edit source]

WPA Syphilis Poster[10]

           During World War I, large numbers of soldiers were turned away from army service due to venereal diseases, especially syphilis[11]. After the war was won, funding and attention for aggressive testing and treatment programs decreased. Then in the 1930s, the consequences of the country’s battle with syphilis got national attention as the case numbers rose and the health effects of the disease rose[12]. The large number of syphilis cases resulted in “serious problems of disability, death rates" and the "costs of [the] long-term effects of syphilis…[became] evident nationwide.”[13] The increased national attention, beginning in 1936, brought millions of dollars in funding from the Social Security Act and support for treatment and prevention programs for the American people[14], which resulted in state and county-led efforts to reduce the disease’s prevalence.

           Tuberculosis was a continual presence in the early 20th century. The United States Mortality Statistics Report for 1931 stated that 68.2 deaths from a population of 100,000 people were because of tuberculosis,[15], as compared to 0.47 per 100,000 person-years in 2006.[16] Previous plans to reduce the number of tuberculosis cases were based on disinfection and public education, but supporters of eugenics put a twist on that theory. Eugenicists said the disease was inflluenced by genetics because of an inherited “constitutional make-up, possibly functional, chemical, or structural” that contributed to an individual’s immunity to the disease.[17] Eugenicists preferred to tell tuberculosis patients to “abstain from marriage…[or]…be sterilized”.[18]

Racism in American Medicine[edit | edit source]

           In the first half of the twentieth century, Jim Crow laws and racism defined public interactions between blacks and whites and medical treatment for the black population. The Tuskegee Syphilis study that ran from 1932 to 1972 held back medical treatment from black men suffering from syphilis, which led to “excess morbidity and mortality,” or more illness and death, in the subjects.[19] That study combined with the mass-sterilizations of non-Caucasian women in the same period fueled decades of “mistrust [resulting] from a legacy of discrimination” in health care.[20] African American men are more likely to have negative health outcomes than any other ethnic group or gender because of discrimination that is built into the healthcare system.[21] Another obstacle present in health care between a white doctor and black patient is more ineffective communication and less trust. Patients feel more understood and comfortable when their doctor is of their own race.[22] In the early twentieth century, only two medical schools for blacks were open,[23] so opportunities for black patients to see a healthcare provider of the same race were slim.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. The unbracketed geographical name was used within the life history, but the name in brackets is the corresponding, legitimate geographical name provided by the first page of the life history.
  2. Parker, Walter R. Interview by Harris, BK. 1939. Federal Writers’ Project.
  3. Ibid
  4. Parker, Walter R. Interview by Harris, BK. 1939. Federal Writers’ Project, 6377-6379
  5. The Chowinian 1982
  6. Parker, Walter R. Interview by Harris, BK. 1939. Federal Writers’ Project, 6379-6391.
  7. Markfield 2019
  8. Cunningham 2020
  9. Markfield 2019, 27
  10. Chicago: Illinois WPA Art Project 1936-1940
  11. Cutler and Arnold 1988, 372
  12. (Cutler and Arnold 1988, 373)
  13. Cutler and Arnold 1988, 373
  14. Cutler and Arnold1988, 373
  15. U. S. Department of Commerce and Bureau of the Census 1935, 25
  16. Jung et al. 2010
  17. Wilson 2006, 29
  18. Wilson 2006, 31
  19. Byrd and Clayton 2001, 21S
  20. Frakt 2020
  21. Frakt 2020
  22. Frakt 2020
  23. Byrd and Clayton 2001, 21S

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Byrd WM, Clayton LA. 2001. “Race, medicine, and health care in the United States: a historical survey.” Journal of the National Medical Association. 93(3 (SUPPL)): 11S-34S. https://www .ncbi.nlm .nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2593958/?page=11.

2. Chicago: Illinois WPA Art Project. 1936-1940. Stop syphilis Support local and state efforts to reduce syphilis, 1 print on board (poster): silkscreen, color (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division). Library of Congress.

3. Cunningham, Connor. 2020. “Survival of the Fittest.” Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. https://www.britannica.com/science/survival-of-the-fittest.

4. Cutler, John C., and R. C. Arnold. 1988. “Venereal Disease Control by Health Departments in the Past: Lessons for the Present.” American Journal of Public Health 78 (4): 372–76. doi:10.2105 /AJPH.78.4.372.

5. Frakt, Austin. 2020. “Bad Medicine: The Harm That Comes From Racism.” The New York Times. The New York Times. January 13, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/13 /upshot/bad-medicine-the-harm-that-comes-from-racism.html.

6. Jung RS, Benion JR, Sorvillo F, Bellomy A. 2010. “Trends in tuberculosis mortality in the United States, 1990-2006: a population-based case-control study.” Public Health Reports; 125(3): 389-397. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/ PMC2848263/.

7. Markfield, Miriam H. 2019. “A More Perfect Union: Eugenics in America.” NAELA Journal 15: 17–37. http://search.ebscohost.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db= aph&AN =136834087&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

8. Parker, Walter R. “Plow Beans for Pills.” Interview by Harris, BK, 1939, Folder 491, Federal Writers Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.

9. [USDC] U.S. Department of Commerce and [BOC] Bureau of the Census. 1935. Mortality Statistics 1931, Thirty-Second Annual Report. Washington, D.C. (United States): Unites States Government Printing Office (USGPO); [accessed 2020 Sept 28]. Report No.: 32. http://data.nber.org/vital-statistics/historical/mortstatsh_1931.pdf.

10. Wilson, Philip K. 2006. “Confronting ‘Hereditary’ Disease: Eugenic Attempts to Eliminate Tuberculosis in Progressive Era America.” Journal of Medical Humanities 27 (1): 19–37. doi:10.1007/s10912-005-9001-6.

11. 1982. “Doctor Raleigh Parker dies; served as college trustee for 26 years.” The Chowanian, December, http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn89002766/1982-12-01/ed-1/seq-2.pdf.