Public Health Surveys

Statewide Surveys

In 1880, C. H. Merrick, M.D. circulated the first statewide public health survey in Oregon (Archival Publications; WA1.O744 T736, page 37)

The first national surveys were conducted in the mid-1840s, though with limited success. The American Medical Association organized a hygiene committee in 1848 with the mission of collecting sanitary surveys from various regions of the country. The surveys collectively showed the need for greater public health efforts, particularly in urban areas.

In 1880, C. H. Merrick, M.D., chair of the Oregon State Medical Society’s Committee on Medical Topography, Meteorology, Endemics, and Epidemics, circulated a medical survey to 300 physicians across the state. It was the first public health survey undertaken in Oregon. Dr. Merrick asked respondents to discuss such areas as prevalent diseases, general health of residents, child mortality, climate, and topography. Twenty-five physicians responded, but most did not discuss the specific topics provided by Dr. Merrick and instead complained about the medical society, quack doctors, and the lack of better statewide medical laws. Among the most detailed responses was a report from Fort Klamath, in which M. Kober, M.D. tabulated diseases that had occurred from 1870 to 1880, including typhoid, tuberculosis, malaria, and various venereal diseases.

Public health report from Fort Klamath, 1880 (Archival Publications; WA1.O744 T736, page 38)
Data from a venereal disease survey of Oregon, 1930 (Public Health Survey of the City of Portland Records; 2005-012)

Once the Oregon State Board of Health was established in 1903, it oversaw statewide surveys, often partnering with the United States Public Health Service (USPHS), as it did in 1927 and 1930 to collect information about venereal diseases in Oregon. According to USPHS, Oregon was the only state in the nation in which a statewide survey of venereal diseases had been completed. The survey provided data regarding cases of syphilis and gonorrhea in all thirty-six counties, but no information regarding the age, race, nationality, or gender of those surveyed.

In 1920, the University of Oregon, under the direction of USPHS, conducted a statewide survey of “mental defect, delinquency, and dependency.” The previous year, the Oregon Legislature approved the undertaking of this survey, in an effort to promote public health in the state, with the provision that the government would not fund it. Without a paid staff, the university and Public Health Service enlisted local physicians, nurses, lawyers, teachers, and other individuals to gather data. Surveyors recorded information pertaining to vital statistics, mental health, and physical disabilities. It became the first statewide, citizen survey in Oregon that collected data pertaining to both mental and physical health.

Sample survey card from the University of Oregon’s Survey of Mental Defect, Delinquency and Dependency, 1920 (Archival Publications; RA413 O66 1921, page 21)
Findings from the University of Oregon’s Survey of Mental Defect, Delinquency and Dependency, 1920 (Archival Publications; RA413 O66 1921, page 3)
Survey of public health in Oregon, 1934 (Archival Publications; RA137 M92 1934)

In 1933, the Oregon Legislature passed a resolution to establish a commission to study public health in the state. At the request of Governor Julius Meier, USPHS sent Joseph W. Mountin, M.D. the following year to oversee a survey of the public health problems and services across Oregon. The survey analyzed state, county, and municipal boards of health, state-run and state-supported institutions, state universities, and other local government entities involved in the promotion and regulation of public health.

In addition to statewide surveys, the Public Health in Oregon collection includes several county and municipal surveys. Many of the latter were conducted by University of Oregon Medical School students, as a requirement of a public health course taught by Harry J. Sears, M.D.

Cohen, William and Richard Lloyd Tegart. “Public Health Survey of the City of Portland.” 1934.

Harry J. Sears Public Health Survey Records, Collection Number 2004-025, Historical Collections & Archives, Oregon Health & Science University.

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.

Mountin, Joseph W. “Survey: Public Health Problems and Services, State of Oregon.” United States Public Health Service, 1934.

Oregon State Medical Society. “Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Meeting,” 1880.

Rosen, George. A History of Public Health. Revised Expanded ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

University of Oregon. A Summary of the Oregon State Survey of Mental Defect, Delinquency, and Dependency. Eugene: University of Oregon, 1921.