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In Oregon classroom, the seventh grade watches sex-education movie.
Caption from LIFE. In Oregon classroom, the seventh grade watches sex-education movie.J. R. Eyerman—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
In Oregon classroom, the seventh grade watches sex-education movie.
Slide from a sex education film, 1948
The movie shows male sperm cells, magnified. Head contains nucleus, tail wiggles and causes cell to move.
The children watch the screen during the birth sequence.
Sperm passes through mother's vagina into uterus (top, center) and tubes. Egg in tube (right) moves toward uterus.
One seventh-grade girl was too shy to ask a question.
In fertilization millions of male cells attack the ovum, and one cell succeeds in penetrating wall of ovum.
Moving along the tube toward the uterus, the fertilized ovum now begins to divide itself into many cells.
The shy student looks away as neighbor held up hand.
Uterus is wonderfully elastic, expands with baby. At four months baby begins to move inside mother.
Neighbor stood up and asked question.
The female silhouette shows that not only the uterus, but the whole stomach wall stretches as the baby starts to grow.
When baby is born, the doctor lends a helping hand. Muscles of uterus help push baby out vagina.
Sex-education in the classroom, 1948.
Producer of film, Actor Eddie Albert, talks to three of the schoolchildren who acted in the movie. He now plans to collaborate with Dr. Beck and produce another film that ail give sex education to children in the first grade.
Sex-education in the classroom, 1948.
Sex-education in the classroom, 1948.
Sex-education in the classroom, 1948.
Officials go over slides used in film. They are (left to right) Dr. Rex Putnam, state superintendent of public instruction, Author Beck, Doretha Massey, supervisor of physical education, and University President H. K. Newburn.
Caption from LIFE. In Oregon classroom, the seventh grade watches sex-education movie.
J. R. Eyerman—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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See How Children Reacted to One of the First Sex-Ed Films Ever Shown

Jun 09, 2015

Today’s debates about sex education in the U.S. have a tendency to come back to the question of abstinence versus contraception. But back in 1948, when a sex-education curriculum was introduced to the seventh graders at Theodore Roosevelt Junior High School in Eugene, Ore., the conversation never strayed too far from the strictly biological.

The students in Miss Blenkinsop’s class were among the first in the country to watch the educational film Human Growth, developed by University of Oregon psychology professor Lester F. Beck. Unlike many educational films that came later, Human Growth did not resort to fear-mongering or sensationalism. The subject matter was presented in a straightforward, digestible way for its target audience.

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Human Growth would soon be used widely as an educational tool. Beck had developed other educational films before this one, and the film incorporated ten years of research and testing. The producer “shot and reshot every scene to eliminate any phrase or expression that could cause embarrassment to the audience.” In a poll of 7,000 Oregon parents, 6,850 responded that they looked forward to their children seeing it, and many even suggested that it be shown before junior high.

LIFE Magazine captured the students' reactions to the 19-minute film using a hidden camera. After watching the film, they asked questions. Their inquiries fell mostly on the technical side of the process of pregnancy and birth: “Why are babies born headfirst?” “How does a baby breathe inside its mother?” “Is it dark inside the mother?” But one boy had a more personal concern. “Do all men have whiskers? When will I get them?” he asked Miss Blenkinsop.

“Don’t worry about it,” she consoled him. “You’ll surely get them before you’re 16.”

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

Read next: Watch Jennifer Garner Talk About Sex… Education

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