Boards of Health

Portland Board of Health

Cortes H. Wheeler, M.D. was the first person to serve as Portland’s city physician. (Historical Image Collection)

Many of the first public health efforts in Oregon were instituted in Portland. The city charter of 1851 empowered the city council to enact ordinances pertaining to the health of Portland citizens. A decade later, the council’s powers were extended to “make regulations to prevent the introduction of contagious diseases into the city; to remove persons afflicted with such disease therefrom to suitable hospitals provided by the city for that purpose; to secure the protection of persons and property therein; and to provide for the health, cleanliness, ornament, peace and good order of the city.”

In 1862 a smallpox hospital was organized on the outskirts of town. Physicians were required to report to the police any cases of smallpox or other infectious diseases. Building owners were also required to report any occupants infected with diseases. A council on police and health, administered by the city marshal, dealt with all public health matters.

Portland organized its first board of health in 1873. Serving on the Board were the mayor, the chief of police, and the chair of the city council committee on health. The Board of Health made the regulation of public health measures finally possible. In 1894 Portland created the office of city physician with Cortes H. Wheeler, M.D. the first to be appointed to the post. An amendment to the city charter in 1903 allowed for the Board of Health to include three physicians.

Oregon State Board of Health

Members of the Oregon State Board of Health, 1905-1910. Pictured left to right: Drs. Andrew C. Smith, E. B. Pickel, R. C. Yenney, Alfred Kinney, E. G. Pierce, W. B. Morse, and C. J. Smith. (Historical Image Collection)

At the turn of the century, Oregon was one of three states without a state board of health. Some Oregon cities had organized municipal boards of health and a few counties had appointed county physicians, but with no central authority in place, epidemics spread across the state without warning or recourse.

The potential of a bubonic plague outbreak in Oregon, after an epidemic was reported in San Francisco in 1902, finally pushed the Oregon Legislature to organize a state board of health. In 1903, Simeon Josephi, M.D. introduced a bill into the state legislature to establish a state board of health. The first dean of the University of Oregon Medical School, Josephi served two terms as a state senator from Multnomah County. The measure passed the legislature unanimously.

Oregon State Board of Health, Quarterly Bulletin, Vol. 9, No. 2, May-April 1915. (Archival Publications; WA1.O744 Q378)

The law created the Oregon State Board of Health, consisting of a secretary and six members, all physicians, charged with educating citizens of health practices, keeping vital statistics, preventing the spread of diseases, and investigating sanitary conditions. The law also provided for county boards of health.

The Board first met on March 14, 1903 and its first action was to send a representative to San Francisco to study the plague outbreak. The Board also began attending national conferences of state boards of health. Almost immediately, the Board discovered a smallpox epidemic, with cases first found in Shaniko, but later located in nearly every part of the state. With the distribution of vaccines by the Board, the number of cases dropped from 414 in 1903 to 190 in 1904.

Woods Hutchinson, M.D., the state health officer, established a division of vital statistics and encouraged physicians across the state to report births, deaths, and infectious diseases. He also began a series of quarterly bulletins to educate the public about health measures, such as sanitation, pure milk, clean water supplies, and ways to prevent tuberculosis, typhoid, and smallpox. In a few years, the Board improved its collection of vital statistics by facilitating better cooperation with the municipal and county boards of health.

Vital Statistics for May and April 1913, from the Oregon State Board of Health (Archival Publications; WA1.O744 Q378, pages 4-5)

Jensen, Kimberly. Oregon's Doctor to the World: Esther Pohl Lovejoy and a Life in Activism. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.

Larsell, Olof, and Oregon Historical Society. The Doctor in Oregon; a Medical History. Portland, Or.: Pub. by Binfords & Mort for the Oregon Historical Society, 1947.

Oregon State Board of Health. Quarterly Bulletin, Vol. 7, No. 2, May-April 1913.

Oregon State Board of Health. Quarterly Bulletin, Vol. 9, No. 2, May-April 1915.