LETTER TO THE EDITOR

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  • 1 University of North Carolina
 School of Public Health
 2101 C McGavran/Greenberg Hall
 Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7435
 Telephone: 919-966-7414
 Fax: 919-966-2089

Dear Sir:

I would like to propose that the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene change its name.

The meanings and usages of some words change so markedly over time that they are dropped from common parlance and replaced by newer words. Often words are dropped because they acquire disparaging connotations. This is the reason why, for example, people who were once “crippled” became “disabled” and then “challenged.” Another example is how the same piece of property that used to be a “swamp,” when we wanted to clear it (to control malaria and build subdivisions), became a “wetland” when we wanted to preserve it.

The word “hygiene” is used very differently today than it was 100 years ago. Back then, the “Science of Hygiene” comprised the cutting-edge laboratory fields of bacteriology and parasitology, which had sprung from the recent revolutionary findings of Pasteur, Koch, and the other great “microbe hunters.” “Hygiene” was also a term used by idealistic public health campaigners introducing huge and life-saving changes into the infrastructure of society, ranging from water chlorination to hand-washing to the pasteurization of milk.

But how is the word “hygiene” used today? One can buy feminine hygiene products, go to a dental hygienist, or have poor personal hygiene. My own association to this word is a required ninth grade hygiene class, in which a gym teacher lectured me and other snickering teenagers about the menstrual cycle. So “hygiene” doesn’t really mean what it used to mean.

Do we really need “Hygiene” in the name of our Society? Do any members of our Society self-identify as “hygienists” at academic cocktail parties? How many of our members are actively engaged in “hygiene” programs or research? Even the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health jettisoned the word when it renamed itself the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

I suggest that the name of our society better reflect its composition and the health needs of the 21st century. How about American Society of Tropical Medicine and Global Health? Or if we could find a wealthy donor….

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