Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 82.djvu/357

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THE wide-spread ignorance of the various means employed by the federal government to promote the well-being of its citizens is nowhere better exemplified than in the common ignorance of the functions and important work of the Public Health Service. This ignorance is the more lamentable inasmuch as the Public Health Service is the sole national agency operating to combat and prevent epidemic diseases among human beings, and to improve public sanitation and hygiene, in the United States. The awakening national conscience in public health affairs lends peculiar interest at this time to a consideration of the varied and important functions exercised by this service, and the fascinating history of its achievements.

The Marine Hospital Service is one of the oldest and most peculiarly American of all our institutions. Its beginning was in an act of congress of July 16, 1798, which put a tax of twenty cents a month on every seaman of the United States, to be taken from his wages. The occasion for this procedure had been well explained by Hon. William Williamson in the House of Representatives away back in 1792.

Wherever it is probable that sailors may be sick, there I would make provision for their support and comfort. Hospitals should be erected or lodgings hired at every port of entry in the United States, for sick and infirm seamen, where they may be properly attended during their indispositions. The money to be collected at the several ports as hospital money should be expended in those same ports alone, under care of such a person as may be designated for that purpose.

The first hospital owned by the government was at Washington's Point, Norfolk County, Virginia. This was purchased in 1800. Three years later a Marine Hospital was completed at Boston. At about the same time, the money collected by taxation of seamen was transformed into a general fund for medical relief work among sailors. The same legislation made provision for the establishment of the service in New Orleans, which was not then a part of the United States.

After a time the seamen's tax was not sufficient to maintain the constantly broadening work, which had to be correspondingly restricted in its usefulness. No chronic or incurable diseases were treated, nor was any patient kept longer than four months. Sailors in those days fared poorly, and their life was a hard one indeed. Especially was this true on the Mississippi River system, which was a great water-highway

  1. The author is indebted to Surgeon George W. Stoner, Chief Medical Officer at Ellis Island, for many facts concerning the earlier history of the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service.