In 1842, the City of Fort Wayne established what was then known as the Board of Public Health. Today, with a budget of nearly $4.3 million and a staff of 70 full and part-time employees, the Allen County Department of Health serves a combined population of approximately 363,000 residents.
The following is a brief history of the Department of Health through the decades. This information is based on historical accounts, department records and archival material.
Between 1830 and 1840, Fort Wayne went from being a town of 300 people to being a city of 2,050. Most settled near the three rivers around what is today known as Fort Wayne’s West Central Neighborhood. With this increase, the city also began developing unsanitary conditions. People commonly let their animals wander the streets freely, which led to animal waste collecting on the street. Early toilet facilities would often times seep into wells and people also dumped waste into the rivers.(9) While Fort Wayne was becoming more industrious, the population boom had led to an increase in diseases such as diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, smallpox, and consumption. (10)
On July 15, 1842 the first Fort Wayne Board of Health was appointed by the Allen County City Council. The board consisted of three doctors whose duty was to advise and report all unhealthy conditions to the City Council (11). During the mid-eighteen hundreds, the board was responsible for identifying and containing contagious diseases, regulating the slaughter of animals, and surveying alleys and streets to ensure their sanitary conditions.
In 1849, the cholera epidemic was fast approaching Fort Wayne. To prevent a major outbreak, two deputies were hired in each of the six wards of the city and were appointed to visit any house, yard, stable, alleys, or any other place in which there was reason to believe that it could spread disease (13). The Board of Health was gaining more authority than ever before, and had full powers within the city to authorize the removal of any person infected with any contagious disease for the safety of inhabitants (15).
In the late 1860s, the City Board of Health reported that most of the streets and alleys in Fort Wayne were in filthy condition. To help restore Fort Wayne to a more sanitary condition, the Board made three provisions. The Board asked for the removal of slaughter houses and putting them at a location east of the city; an ordinance to prohibit the location of hog pens within a specified distance of any residence; and an appointment of a health police officer (26). Such provisions had prevented epidemic diseases from occurring.
In 1891, the state required that every county must have a health commissioner who must be elected every four years (178). The city Boards of Health were also required to appoint a physician to be a secretary. In the early 1900s, the structure of the Board of Health began to change. In 1909, the county Board of Health was abolished and the office of the health commissioner was established. The duty of the commissioner was to enforce health laws, ordinances, orders, and rules of their boards of health; collect, record, and report the vital statistics; keep records and minutes of public health work, and to make monthly reports (179).
Leading causes of disease in the early 1900s were from city water and unsanitary privy vaults and outhouses. To help combat infectious disease, chief sanitary officer William L. Brown had 1,422 toilets put in houses in 1916 (253). Around this time, the Byron Tuberculosis Sanatorium was established. This facility was named to honor Irene Byron, who died while serving her country in World War I and was an executive secretary of the Anti-Tuberculosis League. (254)
Although more measures were being taken to combat the spreading of disease, Indiana was not spared by the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918. Measures that town and county health departments in Indiana took to try and stop the spread of this disease were stressing the importance of covering one’s mouth with a handkerchief when coughing and excluding people with runny noses from public meetings. By October the epidemic became more serious and widespread and all public events were banned and all churches were closed for services. In addition, large scale public funerals were not permitted to be held. (Furtado)
Between the 1920s and 1940s, the Fort Wayne Board of Health helped significantly increase life expectancy among its citizens. The Board of Health and other city officials took steps to better ensure the purity of drinking water. Connections between private wells and drinking water were eliminated, as these were possible sources of contamination (372). An adequate sewage system was also constructed to eliminate the dumping of raw sewage into the rivers. In a matter of five years, these movements brought Fort Wayne from being the third worst municipality in the United States in typhoid mortality to being the second best (372). The Board of Health also started a diphtheria immunization campaign and also improved the inspection and distribution of meat and dairy. (272
Changes in Fort Wayne during the sixties and seventies were consistent with changes in the country as a whole during that time. Fort Wayne’s population experienced significant growth throughout the sixties and annexed surrounding areas. With this, river and air pollution became bigger issues. Venereal disease was also becoming more prevalent during the late sixties and early seventies as birth control was being more widely used. Alarmed at a doubling in the rate in the incidence of venereal disease, the Fort Wayne Board of Health pledged its eradication by educating the public and providing free treatment.
After several years of debate, lawmakers approved a bill that created a joint health agency by merging the Fort Wayne and Allen County Departments of Health on February 9, 1972. This unification would end the duplication of work done by the two departments, inspection services would be brought together in a more efficient and collaborative manner, and health problems common to both urban and suburban areas could be addressed simultaneously. The merge would also be more efficient in enforcing a countywide environmental control ordinance, as pollution was increasingly becoming a bigger problem in Allen County and had no ecological boundaries.
Department of Health Timeline of Events
- 1843 – State of Indiana passes the enabling legislation allowing for the creation of the Fort Wayne-Board of Public Health
- 1906 – Mandatory 18-day quarantine imposed against any pupil exposed to smallpox
- 1908 – Meat and milk licenses are issued. Merchants have to declare the number of wagons used to deliver the milk in Fort Wayne to obtain a permit.
- 1910 – Rules regarding quarantining of houses is adopted
- 1918 – Spanish flu hits. Physicians are ordered to report daily to the Health Department all cases of influenza (mild or severe) coming to their clinics. Schools are ordered to send every pupil or teacher having a severe cold, cough or sneezing to their doctor.
- 1919 – A Venereal Disease Clinic is created
- 1935 – Food and Beverage Ordinance written and passed; Water Cross Connection Campaign developed due to water pollution issues
- 1945 – Campaign started to rid city of “rats which have accumulated during
past years when garbage collection was difficult due to war and manpower shortage.”
- 1946 – City declares emergency and is placed under quarantine due to ongoing rabies epidemic
- 1949 – New isolation hospital (Irene Byron) opens; Polio epidemic is worst in Fort Wayne history with 45 cases and 5 deaths to that point
- 1957 – New state law requires each school in Indiana to report the disease immunization record of each student; A merger of the city and county health departments is discussed
- 1969 – Board establishes a TB clinic at the Irene Byron Hospital
- 1971 – Health Department moves into the City-County Building; Rodent control division is established; Commercial swimming pool and beach ordinance is adopted
- 1974 – Building Department takes over some duties of health department
- 1977 – Mosquito spraying for St. Louis Encephalitis is demanded by public
Compiled by Kathryn Anderson, Mindy Waldron and John Silcox
The information on this page was compiled by Kathryn Anderson, Mindy Waldron and John Silcox using the following sources:
- Executive Board of Health minutes (1906-)
- Annual Reports (1959-)
- Scrapbooks and newspaper clippings
- Gellar, William H. & and Circle, Chalmer G. (1990). History of Public Health in Fort Wayne and Allen County, Indiana. Fort Wayne: R.A.W. Printing Service.
- Furtado, Rebecca. “The 1918 Spanish Flu: Hoosiers Were Not Spared.” Associated Content (May 11, 2009)
- Internet Archive, http://www.archive.org/movies/thumbnails.php?identifier=TurnerPublishingHistoricPhotosofFortWayne
- Allen County Public Library