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The City of Springfield established the Department of Health on July 14, 1873. City of Springfield and Greene County Health Departments were combined about a century later, in the late 1970s, to become the organization we’re familiar with today—the Springfield-Greene County Health Department.
The department’s director, Kevin Gipson, says the birth of health departments across the U.S. was in the late 1800s, and it was generally to control communicable disease.
"We were seeing smallpox cases, cholera, yellow fever, all those type of diseases, and the number one priority was to get those diseases under control," he said.
Today we have antibiotics and ways of controlling disease. Back then, the Department of Health ran a quarantine camp to keep disease from spreading.
"We called a pest camp from 1899 to 1921 where we would detain people who were infectious with yellow fever or smallpox or other diseases, cholera, until they either died or got better to keep them away from the general population. That was our way of controlling communicable disease. Certainly nowadays that wouldn't be acceptable with civil rights and those sort of things," he said.
According to Gipson, the camp was west of Doling Park—he believes I-44 runs over it now.
Other interesting points in the Health Department’s history include helping to control the Spanish Influenza Pandemic in 1918 and the organization’s involvement in the search for loose cobras in Springfield in 1953.
"Whether it did any good or not, the director of health, Dale Caywood who became the first city manager, maybe that's because why he did, ordered them to drive around and play snake charming music. Whether that did any good or not, I think it made the citizens feel like we were doing something, and sometimes just action is better than no action so that was sort of an interesting little anecdote of our history," he said.
The Health Department also ran City Hospital, which is now Cox North, for 20 to 30 years, Gipson says. In 1968, all City Hospital in-patient services were contracted out to Cox and St. John’s.
Today, the Springfield-Greene County Health Department has around 100 employees and around 60 different programs from animal control to restaurant inspections to communicable disease prevention. Gipson says they’re in the prevention business. A good day, he says, is when nothing happens and they’re behind the scenes working to control diseases before they become a problem.
When the Department of Health began operating, life expectancy was 45-years-old. Today it’s more than 75. Gipson credits the public health system and its programs for that increase.
"Whether it be hygiene, good sewer systems, clean water and the control of disease during the antibiotic era and what we've done for testing and treatment of disease," he said.
As the department celebrates its 140th year, Gibson says they continue to work to wrap their arms around lifestyle-related issues such as overeating, overdrinking and oversmoking, though he says progress is being made.
For KSMU News, I’m Michele Skalicky.