For Public Health Service History Buffs Only

commissioned corps surgeon general usphs

I stumbled upon an inspiring, albeit antiquated, video describing the role of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS). The video was created in 1936 and appears to be spearheaded by then Surgeon General Thomas Parran. The narration is definitely reminiscent of the time period though I found it quite entertaining.

As a side note, the National Institute of Health (NIH) has many collections of PHS history in its libraries. As it should, NIH is indeed part of PHS and has been since the late 1880's. In the beginning it was known as the National Hygienic Laboratory when the old marine hospitals were around. In 1930, the Hygienic Laboratory changed its name to NIH. Back to the movie!

The quote in the beginning of the movie is VERY much on-point for the need of a PHS, and it really hits home given our country's current struggles with COVID-19. I will repeat the quote here:

"The average citizen usually takes little interest in the matters of public health until an epidemic brings imminent danger to himself and members of his family.

When the epidemic subsides he quickly loses interest again, instead of directing his efforts to the prevention of future outbreaks.

The advice, 'In time of peace prepare for war,' applies to the fight against disease as well as against a military enemy. Disease has destroyed more people than all the wars in history. 

Public health workers not only fight epidemics when they occur, but they must be ever alert and constantly working and devising means to prevent their occurrence.

The protection of health against the invasion of disease form abroad, and the attack and spread within our borders, is the purpose of the far-flung system of disease prevention and control that makes up the United States Public Health Service."

I LOVE this. I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with this assessment by Parran, especially given our current circumstances. It's as if we forgot the potential for disease to ruin our society. 

The movie is 55 min long and is well worth the time to reflect on the roles of PHS in the past. It goes through the history of PHS from the beginning through 1936 and describes involvement in:

  • the Civil War,
  • border and immigration disease control,
  • international consulates,
  • rat round-up to control Plague,
  • trachoma management in the East Mountains of the U.S.,
  • leprosarium management,

and more. It is clear to see PHS had a much more prominent role within the U.S. and was well-recognized amongst the public.

For instance, there is a scene where a PHS "quarantine tugboat" approaches a vessel to respond to the vessel's doctor's concern about an infected sailor. The tugboat is described as being well-known to sailors and seamen. Indeed, these tugboats had jurisdiction and authority to inspect all incoming ships and vessels into the U.S. if there was suspicion of disease onboard that could spread within our borders.

When the Commissioned Corps gets funding one day, the first thing I vote to bring back is the tugboat!

While we may not need the tugboats as much anymore (except for cases like the Diamond Princess), it is remarkable that PHS once had many resources at its fingertips. That is certainly not the case anymore. Imagine how much more PHS, specifically the Commissioned Corps, could benefit the public if it was properly funded. 

To echo Parran's sentiment, we cannot "quickly lose interest" once the current pandemic is over. We need to invest more into resources for effective response to disease outbreaks and that includes investing into the Commissioned Corps; bring the tugboats back! :)

What do you think? Comment below  and let me know if you watched the movie!

-Sean


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