NASHVILLE – The establishment of public health as a department 90 years ago is being lauded this month by Tennessee officials as a landmark event in state history.
On the morning of Feb. 1, 1923, the Tennessee Department of Health came into existence under an act of the Tennessee General Assembly, making this month the 90th anniversary of when the agency was created.
“A baby born in Tennessee today is expected to live approximately 28 percent longer, nearly 17 years more, than a baby born in 1923, and that is due in no small part to nine decades of service by public health officials,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in regard to the anniversary.
“In 1923, polio, malaria, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and smallpox were common illnesses," he said. "Today, some are completely removed as threats while others are rarely seen. Every day, Tennesseans and visitors to our state are impacted in many ways by the department’s work. We are safer, healthier and have important vital records because of the Tennessee Department of Health’s critical efforts during the last 90 years.”
While officials are proud of the past accomplishments, they said the health of individuals and communities can change quickly if vigilant efforts do not continue.
"In 1923, 80 of every 1,000 babies born in Tennessee did not survive the first year of life. Today, fewer than eight of 1,000 don’t survive," said Dr. John Dreyzehner, commissioner of the Health Department. "While that is a dramatic improvement, we are not satisfied, just as our forebears in public health weren’t satisfied with 80. But that reminds us if we stay focused on protecting, promoting and improving public health, we can and do make dramatic gains over time.”
Prior to the early 1920s, there was a hodge-podge of efforts across Tennessee to address sanitation, epidemics, recordkeeping and other tasks associated with improving public health.
Throughout the 1800s, recurrent outbreaks of illnesses, most notably yellow fever and cholera, prompted leaders in the medical community to call for a state board of public health. The first such board came into being in 1877. Between 1877 and 1923, the board, which was at first unfunded, addressed the need for regulations of food and drugs, school sanitation, fighting epidemics, preserving health records and establishing public health services in counties.
Some milestones of the last 90 years include:
1925: The Division of Laboratories was created on a full-time basis, with the main facility in Nashville and branch labs in Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville. Additional branch labs were opened in Johnson City in 1928 and Jackson in 1942.
1927: Between 1927 and 1937, a total of 65,895 approved privies were constructed, many by Works Progress Administration workers.
1934: Between 1934 and 1935, Health Department state laboratories examined 2,506 animal heads for rabies.
1936: A dental hygiene unit was organized to create a general awareness for preventive and corrective dental care in younger age groups and to provide emergency and important dental services to school-aged and preschool children whose families are unable to pay for these services.
1941: The largest outbreak of polio ever occurred in Tennessee, with 522 cases.
1943: The last confirmed case of smallpox occurred in Tennessee.
1950: There were 1,874 cases of whooping cough in Tennessee.
1957: An influenza outbreak occured in the fall and winter, with 180,164 cases reported and a death rate of 8.7 per 1,000 population. It was the largest flu outbreak in Tennessee since 1918.
1960: A total of 357 residents died from tuberculosis in Tennessee.
1966: This was the first year since records were kept that Tennessee had no reported cases of diphtheria or poliomyelitis.
1970: The General Assembly passed a bill requiring licensing of nursing home administrators.
1977: The General Assembly passes the Tennessee Child Passenger Protection Act of 1977, making it the first state in the nation to enact a law designed to protect automobile passengers from death and serious injury. It went into effect Jan. 1, 1978. The law requires parents to package or restrain children younger than 4 years old in federally approved child-restraint systems while riding in family owned vehicles on Tennessee streets and highways.
1982: AIDS reporting in Tennessee began, with the first case of HIV coming to the attention of health professionals 10 years later.
1985: There were 49 tuberculosis deaths in Tennessee, compared with 1,072 in the 1936-1937 fiscal year.
2002: The first case of the West Nile Virus in humans in Tennessee was reported, spurring additional aggressive efforts to control insect populations.