CHHS and History Research Seminar: Dr Rebecca Scales

We were joined by Rebecca Scales on November 24th to hear about her work entitled, ‘Inventing Polio Care at the Colonie de Saint-Fargeau Disability and the Welfare State in Interwar France’.

Scales noted that in 1919, a polio survivor and Red Cross nurse named Ellen Poidatz created France’s first residential polio care facility for children, the Colonie de Saint-Fargeau, building directly off of her wartime work with disabled veterans. Like many wealthy bourgeois women of the era, Poidatz forged a professional career for herself in the “para-political” space of the interwar welfare state, relying on a combination of private donations and state subventions to create a unique institution that integrated orthopedic surgery, rehabilitation, and education for children. To obtain funds for the Colonie, Poidatz situated her work within the dominant eugenics and natalist politics of the 1920s, arguing that rehabilitating disabled children would preserve “the youth [France] so desperately needed.” Yet Poidatz and her staff (many of whom were disabled) also sought to create a “familial environment” for the children in their care by offering themselves as living models of successful disabled adults. This talk interrogated the “family politics” of Saint-Fargeau, examined why Poidatz felt compelled to use familialist metaphors to justify her social work, but also the complex negotiations—over medical treatment and outcomes, education, long-term family separation—that sometimes divided parents, children, and medical personnel. Finally, Scales considered how the Colonie de Saint-Fargeau’s “family politics” turned it into a model institution for France’s hybrid public-private welfare state that shaped the treatment of disabled children into the post-WWII era.

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