• To learn about the significance of “public health”
  • To learn how the U.S. government educated its citizens about public health concerns in the 1930s
  • To research how the U.S. government and others (such as drug companies) educate citizens about public health concerns today
  • To create sample public health education campaigns for current health issues
  • To understand that even though some public health concerns of the 1930s are not relevant today, many are still important.



Public Health: The science and practice of protecting and improving the health of a community, as by preventive medicine, health education, control of communicable diseases, application of sanitary measures, and monitoring of environmental hazards.


What is public health?

Start a discussion with students about public health education. What kinds of health issues are raised by “public service announcements” on the radio or television, by “Back to School Special” type programming, and on billboards and signs at bus stops or on other public transit? Bring up some examples to get the conversation started such as:

  • “Seek Truth” (stop smoking campaign)
  • “Just Say No” to drugs / “this is your brain on drugs,” etc.
  • “Got Milk?”
  • “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” / “drinking and driving can kill a friendship”
  • “Five a Day” (fresh fruits and vegetables)
  • “Back to Sleep” (placing infants on their backs to sleep)

Some topics of discussion might be: what are the health issues in these ad campaigns? Who sponsored and paid for these ads? What role might government agencies take in these kinds of education campaigns? Why might we consider smoking, for example, a public health issue rather than an individual health issue? What is the difference between an advertisement for a drug (such as ambien, nexium, etc.), and a public health service announcement? Point out that many public service announcements focus on other subjects (i.e. “Only you can prevent forest fires”) but that health issues are some of the most common subjects.

Ask students to discuss the most important public health concerns today. How did they learn about these issues?

What is the U.S. Government’s role in public health education?
In the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services oversees and funds public health education through two agencies: the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Though the NIH is primarily concerned with health-related scientific research (on issues such as cancer, diabetes, etc.), the agency also creates and distributes public health education materials for parents, caregivers, children, and the general public. (Distribute some examples).

What are some reasons for public health outreach?
Discuss the reasons for public education on health and medical issues. The most general reason is to teach people how to prevent a particular disease. Other reasons, all illustrated in A70 Acres of Science,” are listed below. Have your class think of examples of each from their own experience, and find examples of each from the website.

To make people aware of treatment options
To calm the public
To warn the public
To give information about what a government agency is doing
To answer a general public concern/interest in a topic
To inform a specific segment of the population about laws, treatments, etc.
To get participants for clinical trials
To encourage careers in science
To reach minority populations with information specific to their circumstances
To raise money for research
To change industrial/production procedures
To teach favorable habits to children
To show medical procedures and explain scientific concepts
To celebrate the achievements of scientists



Once there is a general understanding of what issues are important and why we as a society, for example, are concerned with peoples’ health in general, start moving the discussion to how things might have been different in the 1930s (or any historical period). The web exhibit “70 Acres of Science” will introduce students to (among other things) public health issues of the 1930s and 1940s. For the purposes of this lesson plan, the students should focus on the issues raised in the website about public health education. Have the students go through the exhibit and complete a worksheet that will highlight areas of interest. Then split into small groups or, as a class, discuss the different answers to the questions:

What types of public health topics were important in the 1930s? What issues might have been less important than today? Much of the public health outreach focused on educating people about vaccinations, general good hygiene, tuberculosis, and venereal diseases such as syphilis.

What types of public education outreach tools were utilized in the 1930s? Before TV and the internet, how were people reached? Public health education outreach in the 1930s included newspaper and magazine articles, government publications, radio programs, Public Health Bulletins, posters, person-to-person training, schools, exhibitions, parades, movies, speeches, cartoons, and comic books.

Using specific cases from the web site, give examples of how the public was educated about certain diseases or conditions. These include all of the newspaper and magazine articles but especially Lucy Salamanca's articles; Thompson=s manuscript for the PHS public brochure; Roosevelt=s speech carried on radio; the milk codes, mercury level warnings, etc.; the posters for Once a Year for a Lifetime X-ray campaign, malaria control, Christmas Seals and tuberculosis, etc.; the health inventory taken by the Public Health Methods; the classes in dental hygiene in schools; the small pox exhibit, portable display of privies, shop window displays of privies, and World's Fair exhibits and health inventory; movies on cancer and dental hygiene, etc.

Give specific examples of how the public is educated about health issues today. Some examples of today's public health education are television programs, web sites, public service announcements (PSAs), commercials by pharmaceutical companies for conditions like high cholesterol or mental disorders, and advertisements.

How do advertisements increase public knowledge of health issues? What might be the problems in relying on television ads to protect the public’s health?

Go online and find some websites that talk about public health issues. Make a list of public health advertisements while watching TV at home, while riding on public transportation, or while listening to the radio. Discuss.


create your own Public Health Education Campaign:

Have students split into groups to create their own public health education campaign. Students must research the issue and create a campaign that addresses the important points in an easy-to-understand way. The goal of the campaign will be to educate the public about a specific health concern. Either assign topics or have the students choose within their groups. Students can choose something from another era but must tailor their project to fit the appropriate audience (children, elderly, smokers, students, coal miners, etc.) Below are some ideas to start with:

Posters for busses, subways, etc.
Comic book
Mini-exhibit to display at train stations, airports, etc.
Radio or television spot
Newspaper articles



NIH Word on Health – Consumer health information

Office of National Drug Control Policy – Television spots

National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIH – series of PSA’s related to drug abuse in children and adults

Visual Culture and Public Health Posters
National Library of Medicine, NIH – This online exhibit is designed to introduce you to the history of images used in public health posters in the twentieth century. It utilizes the world's largest collection of poster art dealing with questions of health in the United States, housed at the National Library of Medicine. Many of these images can also be viewed through the Images from the History of Medicine (IHM) homepage.

Images from the History of the Public Health Service
The photographic exhibit, “Images from the History of the Public Health Service,” consists of 165 photographs depicting people involved in the work of the Public Health Service (PHS) over much of its long history. For the most part they are fleeting images frozen in time by the lens of the camera, but they are symbolic of much more -- the spirit of a Federal agency whose mission focuses on care and service.

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Office of History and Stetten Museum | Bldg 60 | Suite 230 | National Institutes of Health | Bethesda, MD 20814-1460
Phone: 301.496.6610 | Email: history@nih.gov
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Last updated: 15 March 2016
First published: 2 February 2005
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