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The Children’s Nutrition and Dental Clinics of Mobile: Public Health, Volunteerism, and the Color Line during the Great Depression

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a staggering economic impact in a short time. Jobless numbers in America are growing and food banks and other emergency relief efforts are struggling to keep up with demand. As we struggle to understand what long-term cultural and economic changes the pandemic might leave in its wake, it is worth exploring how earlier generations responded to similar catastrophes.

One example is the Children’s Nutrition Clinic in Mobile, Alabama, founded in 1930, less than a year after the stock market crashed. This was Mobile’s first well-baby clinic, designed to promote the health of undernourished children. It was established by the Mobile Charity League, a women’s volunteer organization that later became the Junior League of Mobile (JLM). The clinic was the most important community project that the MCL had ever launched, and its success was a major factor in gaining the organization admittance as a chapter of the National Junior League.

Much good came from the clinic’s founding. The clinic was supported for decades by Mobile’s first practicing pediatrician and its first pediatric dentist. Services included physical examinations, immunizations, nutritional counseling and food assistance. In an economically struggling southern city, years before the Food Stamp Program and Medicaid were established, the founding of the clinic must have seemed to many like a dramatic step forward in public health.

Yet, the clinic was not really designed to address the extreme racial disparities in nutritional and dental health caused by decades of legal segregation and environmental racism. It was managed by an all-white staff of volunteers and professionals and located in segregated facilities. Unlike the Mississippi Health Project, which was founded by a black sorority in 1936, the clinic did not engage in direct outreach to black communities or solicit help from black organizations or health care workers.1 This blind spot on race surely limited the community impact of the clinic in ways that may not have been readily apparent to its founders. In some ways, the work of the clinic, however well-intentioned, aligns with the interests of early twentieth-century eugenicists in maintaining good “racial hygiene.”

Founding the Clinics

The Mobile Charity League began planning a well-baby clinic soon after the organization was founded in 1925. After building and equipping a children’s ward at City Hospital, the League turned its attention to the clinic. In 1929, two League officers, Julia Roe “Dallas” Ward and Elizabeth Armbrecht Crichton, approached Dr. Bell about helping to staff the clinic.2 He agreed and outlined the free services that the clinic should provide.

Dr. Bell had completed pediatric graduate study at Harvard Medical School after receiving his M.D. from the Medical College of Alabama in 1915. As the first physician to practice pediatrics in Mobile, he saw a limited number of patients by appointment only. But, as he recalled in a 1976 interview, he agreed to serve the clinic because the League women “hit a soft spot in my heart. The idea originated in the minds of those girls…I had a few of them as patients, and they wanted to be anchored into something worthwhile…I was just thrilled to death! ”3 In 1932, Dr. Bell was joined by Dr. Sidney Van Antwerp, who had done graduate work in pediatric dentistry at the Forsyth Dental Hospital for Children in Boston. The JLM initiative became known as the Children’s Nutrition and Dental Clinics. Dr. Van Antwerp and fifteen other dentists contributed their services until 1952.

Read entire article at Nursing Clio