Unprofessional and Consciousness-Raising: American Health Activism and China’s Barefoot Doctors in the 1970s

Elisa Stroh's picture
September 6, 2017
Pennsylvania, United States
Subject Fields: 
Health and Health Care, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Public Health, Social History / Studies, Women's & Gender History / Studies
Unprofessional and Consciousness-Raising: American Health Activism and China’s Barefoot Doctors in the 1970s
4:00pm EDT
Claire Fagin Hall room 2019
418 Curie Blvd, Philadelphia, PA 19104


Speaker: Naomi Rogers, PhD, Professor of the History of Medicine, Yale University

Abstract: In 1971, before Richard Nixon made his historic visit, four American physicians and their wives went to the People’s Republic of China and returned amidst a growing public and professional interest in China’s Cultural Revolution and its implication for American health care. Soon groups of physicians, nurses, social workers and a range of health activists eager to see what was being called the “health nirvana” began to organize their own trips, a movement that continued until the late 1970s. This talk will ask why these groups – ranging from Black Panthers to members of the AMA – went to China and what ideas and practices they then sought to inculcate in the American context. A central issue in the U.S. was the problem of underserved and disaffected populations in the inner cities and in isolated rural towns. China’s barefoot doctors became seen as the solution to this and other health policy problems. Feminist activists, in addition, praised the politically aware, anti-elitist recruitment and training of barefoot doctors (who were mostly women) as wonderfully “unprofessional” and “consciousness-raising.” By the late 1970s, however, with the death of Mao and the reorganization of China’s economic system, American activists became more critical of their own naiveite and enthusiasm, especially around the idea of direct “transplantability.”   


Naomi Rogers, Ph.D. is Professor of the History of Medicine in the Section of the History of Medicine and the Program in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University where she regularly teaches undergraduates, graduate students, and medical students. Her historical interests include health activism; gender and health; disease and public health; disability; and alternative medicine/CAM. Her books include Dirt and Disease: Polio before FDR (Rutgers, 1992), An Alternative Path: The Making and Remaking of Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital of Philadelphia (Rutgers, 1998) and Polio Wars: Sister Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine (Oxford, 2014). Her current book project examines critics of medical orthodoxy since 1945 (Health Activism and the Humanization of American Medicine under contract with Oxford). In May 2017, she gave the Garrison Lecture at the American Association for the History of Medicine on “Radical Visions in American Medicine: Politics and Activism in the History of Medicine.” 

She has taught at Yale since the mid-1990s and has courtesy appointments in the History Department and the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program. 

Contact Info: 

Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing

(215) 898-4502