In the past 10 months, the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) has become an important and visible part of many lives. Its efforts to contain Covid-19 and protect Pennsylvanians from the pandemic have been unceasing and have saved many lives this year.
The DOH is no stranger to epidemics and deadly contagious diseases. Between the opioid crisis of recent years and the 1918 influenza pandemic of a century ago, they’ve seen it all. In fact, DOH was borne from two such epidemics in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
For most of Pennsylvania history, there was no state-wide health service. Despite high mortality rates as a part of ordinary PA life, as well as frequent epidemics of yellow fever, cholera, and diptheria, government officials declined to create any centralized health office in the state until their hand was forced. And in 1885, a terrible outbreak of typhoid in Plymouth did just that. Public outrage at the lack of response led to the creation of the State Board of Health. This board was struggled to protect public health for many years, though, and after another serious scourge of typhoid in Butler state officials reorganized it into the DOH that we still have today.
I’m excited to share my latest article, “‘The Not So Good Old Days’: Disease and the Struggle for Public Health in Pennsylvania,” published in Pennsylvania Heritage earlier this year and now available online too! Check it out and learn the surprising origin story of the DOH, it really is a story of excitement and intrigue (not something you often hear in the history of government!).
I researched and wrote this article in late 2019, well before any of us had even heard of Covid-19. It was a pure coincidence that this was published this past spring, but I’m glad its become extra timely. Its important for us to understand why we have government-run public health in the first place, and seeing the history of Pennsylvania’s DOH can help us better plan and prepare for the future as well.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of public health and medicine, check out these other posts on Another Century: