Health Experimentation for Large Numbers: Military Hygiene Experts and the French Army, 1850-1914

Soldiers' Health, Between War and Peace: 1830-1930
By Anne Rasmussen

Over the second half of the nineteenth century, a body of knowledge grouped under the term ‘military hygiene’ was promoted to the status of a ‘science’. The practitioners – doctors and hygiene experts – became recognised as professionals in charge of preserving the health of the troops. This paper endeavours to highlight the various challenges that military hygiene experts faced in France over this time period: medical/military issues, after the sanitary disaster of the Crimean War; political issues, due to the gradual implementation of universal conscription, which raised the question of the reciprocal rights and duties of the state and the armed nation; scientific issues, with the introduction of statistics and germ theory in order to understand the specific aspects of the higher mortality rate in the military and infectious morbidity in peacetime. The paper shows that the new discipline formed a pioneering frontline in the hygiene movement, in which the military, as a collective, was theorised as a laboratory for medicine for populations and sanitary programmes to tackle infectious diseases.

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