From the US Congress, 1837

Mr. L. insisted that the same reasons which had been urged by the gentleman from Louisiana (Mr. Johnson), in support of his amendment, applied with equal force to Mobile. That city was known to be increasing in population, wealth and business, with great rapidity. It was situated in a climate regarded as somewhat unhealthy at certain seasons, but its immense trade required the employment of seamen and boatmen at all seasons of the year, and if hospitals were to be provided for sick seamen and boatmen at the expense of the Government at any points, he regarded the southern cities as the places most entitled to notice. The amount he had proposed was small, and he hoped his amendment would not be rejected. The amendment prevailed without a division.

The last sentence seems sort of quaint today, doesn’t it. This was the discussion that ensued when the Marine Hospital in Mobile Alabama was funded in 1837. This bill funded hospitals in New Orleans, Mobile, Portland, Newport, and Wilmington, North Carolina, at a cost of $115,000 each.

Why were these hospitals needed? Most illness and death at the time was due to infectious disease. Most sick folks were treated in their homes;  physicians (or other healers) were in attendance, but the nursing was done by family members. In port cities, merchant seamen were necessary to transport goods  from America to Europe (here in Mobile, it was transporting cotton to Liverpool, England). To quote from the National Library of Medicine:

These seamen traveled widely, often became sick at sea, and then, away from their homes and families, could not find adequate health care in the port cities they visited or would overburden the meager public hospitals then in existence. Since they came from all the new states and former colonies, and could get sick anywhere, their health care became a national or Federal problem.

What began as a loose network of hospitals eventually became the US Public Health Service.

In the 1870s, when the Marine Hospital Service was federalized, the city of Mobile saw the need to provide these types of services for her citizens, and the Board of Health was created (by Alabama constitutional mandate). The duties included:

  • Examine all cases of malignant, pestilential, infectious, or epidemic disease
  • Exercise general supervision over sanitary regulation
  • Supervise all matters pertaining to quarantine
  • Supervise all measures of detention, disinfection, and purification of vessels from ports against which quarantine is proclaimed

The county health officer was employed by the Board to oversee the above. In addition, he was required to maintain vaccine and vaccinate all indigent people free of charge (that would be smallpox and rabies in 1873). He was also directed to maintain a dispensary where poor, sick people could receive care.

Fast forward to today. The traditional “health department” is performing roughly the same tasks as outlined in the 1870s, immunizations, control of infectious illnesses (in Mobile, mosquito control is a big part of this), and care of the  sick who happen to be poor. They are, it seems, victims of their own success. Malaria is unheard of in Mobile except when it arrives in a person who has traveled here with the parasite already incubating in his or her bloodstream. Vaccination has moved to the physician’s office with the Vaccines for Children program. Community Health Centers have taken over care of the poor sick. The public health focus needs to be on prevention and early detection of chronic illnesses. These account for 70% of American deaths and most of our disability. Many chronic illnesses are a consequence of tobacco use, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and risky behavior.

In Louisville, Kentucky, the “Board of Health” is now the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness. Not only do they do they perform the traditional health department role but they

  • provide education regarding health behaviors that affect health, such as tobacco use
  • distribute condoms to prevent STIs
  • work to combat childhood obesity through physical activity
  • work to eliminate food deserts through food justice
  • sponsor a health equity speaker series

They do this in a belief that they can address the root causes of health disparities by supporting projects, policies and research working to change the correlation between health and longevity and socioeconomic status.

A far cry from running the quarantine station, is it not?

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