Physical Fitness

The military employed modern punch-card technology, first used by the government for the 1890 census, to tabulate and analyze data on the physical characteristics and medical “defects” found in the military-age population. The results suggested that one-fourth to one-third of the American male population was physically or mentally unfit for military service. The military analyzed health by race, ethnicity, region, and occupational group.

Physical examination of a naval recruit, New York City, 1917–1918
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Recruiting scale, around 1900
Initially the military rejected men weighing less than 118 pounds. Chronic debilitating diseases such as tuberculosis and hookworm, as well as the smaller stature of immigrant populations, contributed to regional differences in weight.

View object record

Vision test, around 1918
Defective vision was prevalent in the large urban centers of the northeast. Eyestrain, from office work, was thought to contribute to this regional difference.

Maps showing the incidence of underweight and defective vision by state compiled from medical data on the first million recruits, 1919
From Physical Examination of the First Million Draft Recruits

Card-punch machine, patented 1901
The U.S. Army hired women to operate the card-punch machines in the Medical Records Section. A good punch operator could complete about 1,500 cards per day.
Gift of the Estate of Herman Hollerith Jr.


View object record

Punch card
Each punch card included encoded medical information about one recruit. Machines sorted and counted the cards to produce the statistics for reports.
From Physical Examination of the First Million Draft Recruits