A recent obituary in The Globe and Mail contained a statement that might surprise many readers. In recounting the life of Hubert (Hughie) J. Kline, it mentioned that, while serving in Italy as a medical officer in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, “he and his colleagues also ‘ran’ the local brothel, to ensure that prostitutes had regular checkups – protecting both the sex-trade workers and the troops from STIs.”
When I told my Canadian military history graduate class about this, they reminded me of our discussions in a “sex and the soldier” seminar, and that Dr. Kline was following a practice established by Canadian military doctors since at least the First World War.
During that war, reported cases of sexually transmitted infections in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (66,083) outnumbered the number of cases of influenza (45,460) and have been described as an “epidemic” that rivalled the “Spanish flu” outbreak among soldiers in 1918.
And yet, leading British military medical authorities, who made health policy for all British Empire forces fighting in Europe, believed STIs should be fought “on moral rather than medical grounds.” They viewed this struggle as “a form of Christian witness,” and they were prepared to forgo preventive measures because they believed they would promote “moral laxity,” thereby letting soldiers become infected rather than fall victim to “mortal sin.”
Canadian medical officers, however, took a different view and, with the support of senior Canadian officers, established programs of education and prevention that helped to control the spread of STIs.
Similarly, in the Second World War, some Canadian churchmen spoke out against the Canadian military’s sex education and STI prevention programs. They argued that STIs should be fought using “an intensive Christian approach,” where “Christian idealism” would guide Canadian medical officers’ strategy.
One of the issues that created a great deal of controversy at the time was the availability of free condoms for those serving with Canadian forces, a policy much envied by those Canadians serving with British forces, which did not provide access to condoms on “moral” grounds.
In this struggle, Canadian medical officers were even prepared to deal with STIs transmitted through same-gender sexual relations, by including, for example, coded references in sex-education pamphlets to the fact that men should use condoms when engaging in sexual relations with other men. This was at a time when homosexual acts were considered crimes; they also could be diagnosed as a psychological disorder, such as “psychopathic personality with abnormal sexuality.”
Nevertheless, Canadian medical officers put the health of their charges above “ideology.” Some historians have suggested that the military experiences of Canadian doctors influenced how they practised medicine when they returned to civilian life, as they had been sensitized to the impact of sound public health policies on the well-being of the population.
Following in the footsteps of their predecessors, Canadian health service professionals serving in Afghanistan made condoms freely available to all personnel, even though sexual activity was prohibited for those deployed in the theatre of operations. Referring to the precedent set by Canadian military doctors in the First World War in explaining this practice, a defence spokesperson said: “Our [role]isn’t to be judgmental. It’s to keep people safe.”
Today, when we read in the media about debates over whether access to birth control should be denied based on moral grounds, whether sex-trade workers should be able to ply their trade in safer environments, and whether health-care professionals should be able to refuse to provide certain services based on their “conscience,” it’s worth recalling that our forebears faced many of these same issues, albeit in a very different social context. Nevertheless, the example of Canadian doctors in uniform is worth noting, and no doubt those in their care were grateful they made the soldier’s health a priority.
Allan English teaches Canadian military history at Queen’s University.
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