A team of archivists has begun sorting through 60 years of Department of Health (DOH) records thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. During the next year, they will process 800 Bankers Boxes of historical records from 21 NYC Health Department Commissioners, ranging from Shirley W. Wynne in 1929 to Woodrow Myers in 1991. The final result will be a detailed guide to the collection.
The records document New York City’s long-recognized leadership role in disease prevention, vaccinations, health education, food safety, drug and alcohol addiction treatment, family planning, and health care for infants, school children, and expectant mothers. The records also show how city government reacted to, and managed, acute outbreaks of infectious illnesses such as diphtheria, measles, polio, typhoid fever, and HIV and AIDS. For example, the DOH implemented and upheld strict regulations on the production of milk to control typhoid fever outbreaks.
Most of the records consist of correspondence to and from the commissioner and top officials in the DOH. There is also correspondence from ordinary New Yorkers who wrote to request publications, ask health questions, or register complaints about conditions in their neighborhoods. They also asked for expert advice on gimmicks advertised on radio and in various publications. The correspondence shows how the DOH combated misinformation deemed “medical quackery.” The papers also contain a wealth of information about policy and legislation, as well as the inner-workings of the Department. The collection also includes fliers, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, photographs, posters, and other materials created by the Department for public outreach campaigns.
Community health care is another important theme highlighted in the collection. In the 1930s the city was divided into 30 health districts, with the goal of establishing city-operated clinics tailored to the neighborhood. The first clinics opened in the 1930s and provided an array of public health services, with a focus on children and expectant mothers. In particular, the DOH played an active role in training midwives to reduce infant mortality.
The collection is particularly strong in documenting DOH efforts to combat infectious diseases. Although the commissioners faced differing outbreaks and epidemics over time, there is a common thread in their responses: vaccination, educating the public, and establishing local health centers to get information and treatment to the community. These strategies are still deployed to this day. New York City set a public health example for the rest of the United States and continues to do so. Overall, the materials exemplify New York City’s commitment to its citizens and their health.
We have only begun to realize the collection’s worth and potential. Watch for more posts about the Health Commissioners’ records as the work continues. We look forward to sharing highlights from the collection and the insights that they provide!
This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.