IDPH 125th

125 YEARS AGO IN PUBLIC HEALTH


The State Board of Health was organized in 1877 and, for the first time, public health became a permanent function of state government. The board was given responsibility for regulating medical practitioners and for promoting sanitary and hygienic activities to control and prevent disease.

Prior to the creation of the State Board of Health, local township and municipal governments in the state had been given the authority, either by special charter or by general legislation such as the Cities and Villages Act of 1872, to protect the public health in their respective communities. In some of the larger cities of the state, this authority had been exercised, and local boards of health or city physicians appointed to do the work. Many times, though, a public health framework was hastily erected in response to an outbreak of cholera, smallpox or another communicable disease. After the danger from the epidemic had passed, enforcement of newly instituted sanitary measures lagged, the enthusiasm of local officials waned, and appropriations for public health measures lapsed and were not renewed. The framework would collapse, only to be reconstructed with the arrival of the next epidemic.

This scenario replayed itself in all parts of the state. Chicago was no exception. The city’s board of health was abolished as late as 1860, when local government declared an “absence of any alarming conditions.” Seven years later, it was necessary to re-establish the board of health when cholera afflicted the city and smallpox was reaching epidemic proportions.

In the absence of local health departments or boards of health, the state’s medical societies took an active interest in instituting measures to protect communities against pestilential diseases. In communities or counties where a local health organization did exist, members of these societies often served on the local board. This involvement brought the doctors into contact with numerous unqualified persons who were practicing medicine. While there were no laws prohibiting such quackery, such activity prompted the medical societies to push for the creation of the State Board of Health.

On July 1, 1877, two laws, one known as the State Board of Public Health Act and the other as the Medical Practice Act, went into effect. The State Board of Health, which was organized on July 12, 1877, was charged with enforcing both laws. This dual responsibility of regulating the practice of medicine and promoting sanitary and hygienic activities – ordinarily referred to as public health service – was a first for a state board of health in the United States, and it provoked considerable interest among the country’s sanitarians and members of the medical profession.

Dr. John H. Rauch of Chicago, the highest ranking medical director on Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s staff in the Army of Tennessee and sanitary superintendent for the Chicago Board of Health, was elected the first president of the new State Board of Health. The board’s initial two- year operating budget was $5,000.


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