When Scott Stern entered Yale University as a freshman in 2011, the Allderdice High School graduate had no idea that he would be spending the next six years researching the systematic imprisonment of women in America under the guise of safeguarding public health.
Now, having just completed his first year at Yale Law School, Stern is the author of “The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison ‘Promiscuous’ Women” (Beacon Press), the culmination of those years of research.
The book is an in-depth look at the “American Plan,” a program implemented throughout the United States in the 1910s — it lasted in some locales into the 1960s — in which possibly hundreds of thousands of women were detained against their will on suspicion of being carriers of sexually transmitted infections.
Not many people have heard of the American Plan, but it captured the attention of Stern when a professor mentioned it in passing during his freshman year.
The professor was speaking of how difficult it was historically to treat STIs because of the stigmatization, and according to Stern, said, “almost as a throwaway, that during World War I the government even locked prostitutes in concentration camps.”
The phrase “concentration camps,” Stern said, “threw me for a loop. That phrase is such a salient one. So, I took a break from note-taking, and I Googled the American Plan.”
When the internet search proved mostly fruitless, Stern decided to look deeper.
“I didn’t really understand how big it was, or how long it had lasted,” said Stern, who grew up in Squirrel Hill attending Congregation Beth Shalom. “And I certainly didn’t understand it from the perspective of the women who were actually incarcerated. So, I found excuses to pretty much devote my college career to it, and when I got my master’s degree, to devote all my time to researching the American Plan.”
The saga of Nina McCall
Stern found source material in archives around the country and in England, and has used it to present a shocking story. He tells the tale through the saga of Nina McCall, a virgin who was nonetheless locked up in a detention hospital for about three months by health authorities in Michigan who insisted she had gonorrhea and syphilis. She eventually sued those responsible for her incarceration.
“She had been born on a farm in the middle of Michigan in the year 1900, so in October 1918, she was barely 18 years old, and she was walking down the street in her small, 2,000-person town when the deputy sheriff stopped her and told her she would have to come with him because the local health officer suspected that she had a sexually transmitted infection, gonorrhea,” Stern said. “And not knowing what else to do, Nina, along with her mother, went with this sheriff to the health officer’s office. There, the health officer performed a very invasive gynecological exam. And he took slides. And after a few minutes he came back with the slides and said, ‘I pronounce this young woman slightly infected.’”
When Nina said that couldn’t possibly be true because she had never had sex, “the heath officer said, ‘I didn’t say you had sex. I said you were slightly infected.’” Stern said. “And he also said there were other ways to get it.”
While locked up, not only was Nina forced to scrub floors, wash dishes and share a small room with three other women, but she also was repeatedly injected with mercury — the most common treatment for syphilis, which the authorities also claimed she had.
“And we now know that doesn’t cure you of syphilis, but it will kill you, and in the process, it will hurt a great deal,” Stern said. “So, Nina started feeling a lot of pain, her hair started falling out, her teeth started falling out.”
When Nina eventually was released and returned home, she could not find a job because of the stigma of having been in a detention hospital for STIs; she was also forced to continue with mercury injections as an outpatient.
The ‘American Plan’ in Pittsburgh
Although the American Plan was minimally enforced during the Depression, its implementation became more common during World War II. During that time, some of the women who had been locked up, as well as the Associated Press, used the phrase “concentration camps” to refer to the detention hospitals, according to Stern.
Stern theorized that the American Plan is not well-known both because of women’s reluctance to speak about being incarcerated and also because its implementation was decentralized, with the federal government encouraging states to pass their own laws.
“By the early 1920s, every single state had passed an American Plan law,” he said. “The American Plan was so decentralized, that all the records showing how it was enforced after the 1910s are scattered throughout the county.”
The American Plan was in force in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, Stern said, with the old Mayview State Hospital housing a ward to incarcerate women suspected of having an STI.
“I know from various archival documents that the American Plan was enforced enthusiastically in Pittsburgh from the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, and appears that it died out during the Depression, which was pretty common,” Stern said. “But then in World War II, it was enforced again more vigorously, and that lasted at least until the 1950s.”
Another Pittsburgh connection to the American Plan is found in Thomas Parran, the U.S. Surgeon General under Franklin Roosevelt, who became the founding dean at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, Stern said. Parran, who was instrumental to both the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the Guatemala syphilis experiment, oversaw the American Plan at the federal level during World War II.
It is important for the public to be aware of the history of the American Plan, Stern said, because in each state, those laws continue to remain on the books.
“It’s highly unlikely they would ever be reused because syphilis and gonorrhea are so easily treatable with a single injection of penicillin,” he said, yet the laws “are not just sitting there quietly.”
“During the 1980s and ’90s — a lot of people forget this now — there were a lot of attempts to institute some sort of quarantine for those with HIV-AIDS, and in a few cases where quarantine did happen, people who were locked up challenged their quarantine and the government cited American Plan lawsuits and American Plan laws,” he explained. “And the courts always ruled against the people challenging their quarantine.
“While quarantine is a valid public health power,” he continued, “I think this history is vital because it tells us the problems with enforcing these laws and enforcing these quarantines based on stereotypes or stigma or simply hatred for marginalized people, like women.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.