Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

This content is shared with MinnPost by MNopedia, the digital encyclopedia created by the Minnesota Historical Society and supported by the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Never had cholera? Thank the Minnesota State Board of Health

Minnesota established a state board of health in 1872. It was the third such board in the United States.

Minneapolis Board of Health member giving vaccinations, 1904. Vaccinations were often supplied to local health boards by the State Board of Health.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

During the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Minnesota faced public health issues such as poor sanitation and disease epidemics. To address these issues, Minnesota established a state board of health in 1872. It was the third such board in the United States.

The Minnesota State Board of Health was established through the efforts of Dr. Charles N. Hewitt. Hewitt was born in Vermont and served as an assistant surgeon for the United States Army during the Civil War. After the war, he moved to Red Wing, Minnesota, to start a private medical practice. In 1872, Hewitt prepared legislation to establish a state board of health in Minnesota. The Board was modeled on the Massachusetts State Board of Health, the first in the nation. The Board would coordinate public health services at the state level. Previously, the state’s public health services were coordinated locally, which made it difficult to control sanitation and disease across town lines.

On March 4, 1872, the Minnesota State Legislature passed Hewitt’s legislation with no opposition, and the Minnesota State Board of Health was established. Hewitt was the first Secretary of the Board.

As Secretary of the State Board of Health from 1872 to 1897, Hewitt strongly influenced the Board’s early work. In 1873, Hewitt opened a chemical laboratory that tested state water and food to ensure its safety. He emphasized good sanitation to prevent the spread of diseases including cholera. In 1875, the Board secured legislation to create a state hospital for what it called inebriates, or alcoholics. It also secured an 1883 law requiring local boards of health in Minnesota to obey and report to the State Board.

Article continues after advertisement

At the turn of the twentieth century, the State Board of Health was also especially concerned with immigrants and lumberjacks. Under Hewitt’s leadership, the Board advocated quarantine for Minnesota residents with diphtheria. The same quarantine system was used to segregate immigrants from other travelers, whether they were ill or not. This was particularly true at the height of the 1892 cholera epidemic.

In 1901 and again in 1904, under the leadership of Hewitt’s successor, Dr. Henry M. Bracken, the State Board of Health tried to order mandatory smallpox vaccination at Minnesota lumber camps. The effort failed due to opposition from lumber firms. In the years that followed, however, a series of regulations made slow progress in improving health and hygiene in lumber camps.

The Minnesota State Board of Health was well known nationally, not only because it was the third such board in the United States, but also because it was on the leading edge of bacteriology. In the 1890s, the idea that disease was spread by germs like bacteria was new. In 1889 and 1890, Hewitt traveled to Europe to study sewers, garbage disposal, and the new science of bacteria. There he visited the labs of several scientists including Louis Pasteur, who discovered germ theory.

Hewitt used what he learned in Europe to advance the work of the Minnesota State Board of Health. In 1890, he established a vaccine station near his home in Red Wing. Vaccines were controversial at the time. Many people feared that vaccines were more dangerous than the diseases they were meant to prevent. Still, Hewitt was successful in providing vaccines to local health boards and health care providers. He reported that he provided 2,000 free smallpox vaccines without any problems, and by 1894, his vaccine station was self-supporting. The same year, Hewitt’s State Board of Health laboratory began testing for bacteria. In 1896, Dr. F.F. Westbrook was hired as the Board’s bacteriologist.

The State Board of Health also established many programs that became stand-alone state agencies. For example, the State Board of Health began food examinations that were later transferred to the State Dairy and Food Department. The Board’s control of animal diseases, begun in 1887, was transferred to the State Live Stock Sanitary Board in 1903.

During the twentieth century, the Board’s priorities shifted in response to public health needs. In 1918, for example, it developed a Division of Venereal Diseases. This was necessary because medical exams showed a high prevalence of syphilis and gonorrhea in World War I recruits. In 1977, the State Board of Health was dissolved. It was replaced by the State Department of Health.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.