A Message from the President
October 3, 2019

Nurses and Climate Migration: Revisiting the ‘Dust Bowl’ History


As I write this, it is 97 degrees outside – in Virginia – in October!  Our usual high for this day would be maybe 80 degrees. Most of us cannot even believe it is October!  That and the recent school strikes led by Greta Thunberg, the young activist from Sweden, have turned my attention to nursing’s history in responding to victims of climate disasters. And, as Dr. Wall and I note in our books, Nurses on the Frontlines and Nursing and Disasters (Springer Publishing), and I write about in Nursing Rural America, the instances are many. Today though, I address one in particular as it has to do with “climate migration” – a particular problem that the world will increasingly face in the future as devastation from natural disasters causes millions of people to relocate to survive.1

Such was the case in the 1930s, when a prolonged and serious drought in America’s midsection, intersecting with the collapse of the U.S. economy and overly aggressive plowing of thousands of acres of prairie, led to uninhabitable conditions in the “Dust Bowl” (sections of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico).  There, the devastating drought and subsequent dust storms choked farms with black sand. Without income from their crops, farmers were unable to pay their mortgages, and were eventually evicted from their homes. Moreover, dust was choking their families as well as the crops.

As a result, more than 250,000 farmers and their families left the plains states and migrated to the west coast to harvest fruits and vegetables. Traveling in battered jalopies packed with tents, bedding, and household items, the families headed to California in search of farmwork.

Photo Credits "Library of Congress"

Arriving in the towns of California’s Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys, the migrants concentrated in appalling numbers, only to discover that work was scarce, pay was little, and living conditions in the squatter camps horrid. Homeless, the migrants lived in rickety cabins owned by their employers or in makeshift “squatter camps” hastily erected along irrigation ditches close to the fields. Without indoor plumbing, families used ditch water for bathing, drinking and toileting. Inevitably dysentery, diarrhea, and other diseases broke out. Tuberculosis was endemic. Other prevalent diseases included conjunctivitis, colds, whooping cough, strep throat, scarlet fever, mumps, and measles.2

Soon Californians saw the filthy tent cities and the Dust Bowl refugees with their “grimy, coughing children” as menaces to their own health. Local citizens soon turned against the itinerants, closing doors to access to medical care, education and housing. Under pressure from local citizens, the State Department of Health was asked to intervene --the migrants had no money for medical care. However, the displaced migrant families were not considered residents in their states of destination, and therefore did not qualify for state relief. As a result, the states soon sought help from the federal government. In response, the federally funded Agriculture Workers Health and Medical Association set up clinics near the ditch camps and employed local public health nurses and part-time physicians to care for the migrants. Traveling from one camp after another, PH nurses made home visits to the makeshift shacks, caring for the sick and teaching prenatal and well-baby care, hygiene, proper diet, and disease prevention. In doing so, nurses had to use what the family had, in some cases teaching young mothers to prepare baby formula using a “saucepan, an empty flask and a tin spoon” or how to make a baby bed from an “orange crate and an old quilt.”4

I could go on, but you can also read some of the sources below, as this is supposed to be an editorial, not a complete article. The “Dust Bowl” history is complicated by issues of race, class, and who is considered “worthy” of help.  Revisiting it today (perhaps in your classes?) we can see the problems created not only by the climate migration itself, but also by peoples’ reactions to the newcomers.  It becomes a familiar story:  fear of “others” bringing disease, and “others” taking jobs (in this case from Chinese, Japanese and Mexican laborers who were working the fields in California). It also involves fear of “others” changing the nature of communities with their “different” culture – different that is from the perspective of those who long took for granted the privileges of belonging.

Once again, history can inform the present.

If you would like to comment on this piece, you can reach me at [email protected].

Arlene W. Keeling PhD, RN, FAAN

1 Arlene Keeling, Chapter 7 in John Kirchgessner and Arlene Keeling, Nursing Rural America, (New York: Springer Publishing 2015)
2 Michael Grey, “Dustbowls, Disease, and the New Deal: The Farm Security Administration Migrant Health Programs, 1935-1947,” The Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Inc.  48 (1993): 3-39. See also Mary Sears, “The Nurse and the Migrant,” The Pacific Coast Journal of Nursing 37, 3 (March 1941): 144-46.
3 A. Keeling, Chapter 7, p. 105
4  Anita Faverman, Edna Rockstroh, Freda Whyte and Laura Bolt, “Trailing Child and Maternal Health into California Migratory Agricultural Camps,” Report of the Second Year of the Migratory Demonstration: Nurses’ Report, (July 1937-June 1938): 28-37 (quote p. 36), Hollenberg Collection, Bancroft Library, Berkley.