Throughout a large portion of the early 20th century, Western Europe was engaged in catastrophic conflict. The first and second world wars ravaged much of the continent, especially Great Britain. London citizens were no strangers to war on the home front, and the city was heavily damaged during the second world war. War, in general, has adverse affects on the health of civilians before, during, and after the conflict (Winter 1977).
“Living in a war country during the period of World War II is consistently statistically significantly associated with higher levels of adult diabetes, being more depressed, and reporting one’s subjective health as worse.” (Kesternich et al.)
WWII served as an impetus in European healthcare reform. As the war began to require more and more resources, the toll on the citizens of London became increasingly profound. To combat this, the city of London and Britain as a whole initiated changes in the way health was approached for the populace as a whole. While the war itself was atrocious and damaging, some lasting good did come of it. As an example, sex education before WWII was generally laissez-faire, but in the 1940s it turned into a more detailed teaching – hygiene, biology, etc (Pilcher 2004).
Food was especially scarce during the war, which had profoundly adverse effects on adult heath in the long run. This effect was especially pronounced in poor communities, where it was increasingly difficult to supplement the paltry rations provided by the government (Kesternich et al.). While the nutrition of the city was deteriorating, other detrimental health issues were causing an increase in mortality, an issue certainly compounded by the standard civilian’s lack of nourishment (London County Council 1944).
Britain as a whole was not blind to these issues, however, as research had been compiled on how to combat the detrimental side effects that war had on the home front. In 1942, the Beveridge report was released by the economist for whom it is named, William Beveridge (The National Archives). This report had a pronounced effect on the city of London, as well as the UK in its entirety. It was a main factor in the creation of the welfare state in Britain, pushing the security and safety of the common citizen into national discussion. Most importantly for this discussion, however, is the health legislation that came from the movement the report spurred. After the war, the National Health Service was created in order to keep better track of, and prevent, the health issues that plagued the country (The National Archives).
As to specific improvements, the Beveridge Report affected children (the group most at risk from wartime rationing) most directly, by improving school lunches and providing milk for them. The amount of malnourishment-related death decreased significantly as the welfare state movement promoted by Beveridge began to gain traction (Kesternich et al.). In the lower socioeconomic strata, deaths began to slow as the war went on due to the increased activity of the government in providing for its citizens health. While the Second World War was horribly damaging to public health, the changes made to keep British citizens alive during the conflict led to pronounced advancements in the way citizens were treated during and after the duration of the fighting.
While each area of the UK was affected differently by the war, the public health was damaged in countless ways beyond the nutrition and overt health issues already discussed. Of all the locations in the country, few were affected as significantly as the greater London area. It was the target of “the Blitz,” an air raid that lasted for over a year, and also had the greatest concentration of citizens living in close proximity to each other (WW2 -The Blitz Hits London). There were a large number of compounding factors that contributed to the emergent system of poor public health in Britain. There is no easy general explanation for the well being of the citizens of the city of London, but throughout our pages, our group will investigate a large number of the issues present and expand upon the effect they had on the community as a whole.
Written by Silas Martin
Brave New World: The Welfare State. The National Archives. March 1942. Accessed April 12, 2016.
Kesternich, Iris, Bettina Siflinger, James P. Smith, and Joachim K. Winter. “The Effects of World War II on Economic and Health Outcomes across Europe.” Review of Economics and Statistics, March 2014, Vol. 96, No. 1 , Pages 103-118.
Pilcher, Jane. ‘Sex in Health Education: Official Guidance for Schools in England, 1928-1977’. Journal of Historical Sociology 17, no. 2-3 (June 2004): 185–208.
‘Report of the Medical Officer of Health for London County Council’ London Medical Officer of Health Reports 1944.
WW2 – The Blitz Hits London September 11, 2013. Accessed April 12, 2016.
Winter, J. M. ‘The Impact of the First World War on Civilian Health in Britain’. The Economic History Review 30, no. 3 (August 1977): 487-507.