100 Years Ago Today

A History Of Events And Happenings From Exactly One Hundred Years Ago

Public Health Service Established In The US

The US colonies in the 17th century were seaports on the Atlantic Coast with outlying small towns. They had local sanitation laws and were keenly aware of disease carried by ships and sailors. In 1699 Philadelphia traced it first yellow fever epidemic to a ship from Barbados and passed “An act to prevent Sickly Vessels from Coming into this Government.” During the 1700’s “health officers” were appointed by communities to enforce maritime quarantine laws. Ships suspected of carrying contagious disease were held in isolation for a period of 40 days. To show this quarantine, ships were required to fly a yellow flag.

Public health was not addressed by the federal government. The Constitution makes no mention of it. During a yellow fever epidemic in 1798 President John Adams signed the first Federal public health law. This law called for every arriving seaman to pay 20 cents a month for the care of sick seamen and the building of Marine Hospitals. The Marine Hospital Service became part of the Department of the Treasury. Each hospital operated independently, usually privately-built and owned by a proprietor who by contract took sick seaman as patients and received pay from the federal government. The hospitals were always hard pressed especially when an entire ship of hundreds of people could require treatment and quarantine.

After the Civil War there were 27 Marine Hospitals and the need to organize was apparent. In June 1870 President Grant signed a bill establishing a Bureau of the US Marine Hospital Service and created a Supervising Surgeon. He set up through the Department of State a reporting system on epidemics overseas and designed a seal and flag.

US Marine Hospital Service Flag

In August 1887 the first public health research center, the “Laboratory of Hygiene” at the Marine Hospital on Staten Island was established. A Congressional Act in July 1902 provided specifically for the organization and management of the Hygienic Laboratory “for the investigation of infectious diseases and matters pertaining to the public health.” The name of the Marine Hospital Service was changed to the “Public Health and Marine Hospital Service.”

On August 14, 1912 a new law changed the name from the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service to simply the “Public Health Service.” The seal and flag of the organization were modified to incorporate the quarantine flag yellow of the past.

The new flag of the Public Health Service
adopted August 14, 1912



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