Public health a concern in 1920

Amorette Allison History Columnist
Friday, March 20, 2020
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Sometimes, the hundred year old headlines are bit strange but the information in the articles can be fascinating. For instance, on Friday, March 12, 1920, there was a long article with the startling headline DEFECTIVES RATE IN EASTERN MONTANA ABNORMALLY HIGH.

They were talking about children but it wasn’t what it sounds like. The Welfare League was interested in improving children’s health and education and the state had recently done a large survey — spurred partly by the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic — on the general of the state’s population, especially the children.

The Public Health Service for the State Board of Health was trying to get across the idea that every county should have public health nurse. A good bit of the conversation at the meeting covered by the drastic headline concerned that topic.

But the story ranged and bit and was full of interesting facts. Mrs. Ida Pratt, a local nurse, was heading the meeting because the normal, Dr. Geo. Brown, was absent. His absence was not explained. She started off with some relevant facts, which I will quote.

“Custer county, she said, covers approximately 5,000 square miles and has 50 schools. Of these, five are near the railroads, about 15 on the main county roads and the 30 others are less accessible. There are no signposts and many are difficult to reach.”

The nurse for the State Board of Health had tried to go to all the schools and had examined around 650 students but missed 12 or 14 schools apparently because she couldn’t find them.

Road signage in the rural areas has always been a bit hit and miss and I can see a lonely school in a distant ranch not even having a road. The kids walked there, the teacher lived there or on a ranch within walking distance. Why should anybody else be bothered to look for it?

The story continues with a rather shocking line. “An unusually large percentage of defectives were found here.”

By that, the nurse meant they found a lot of children with bad teeth, “an extra large number of poor vision,” and curved spines. The blame was placed on “undernourishment.”

There was also the problem of sanitation, which was partly blamed on poverty. When most families had a privy and a limited water supply, decent sanitation was almost impossible to provide.

This was where the public health nurse came in. “Women past school age who are the ones upon whom devolves the care of maternity cases and infant nursing must be taught how to perform these functions in the country homes, and to practice sanitation.”

For the first time since the Romans and their baths, people were starting on cleanliness, partly due to an awareness of germ theory and partly because soap and plumbing were more common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Dawson county, by the way, came in for criticism on its high maternal and infant death rates, which “this year were particularly bad because of the financial difficulties due to the drouth.”

The Public Welfare League were presented with the information that the public health nurse “needs a ground work of three years training. She (Mrs. Pratt) recommended that a nurse be found who has been graduated, registered as a trained nurse, and who has some practical knowledge.”

Mrs. Pratt suggested that each of Custer county’s then 50 schools “be made a center for this teaching where the nurse could meet with parents once in two months, it being manifest, she said, that 5,000 square miles was too large a territory to cover otherwise, it perhaps would be found necessary to combine three or four schools and an elastic plan should be found to meet local needs.”

The meeting went on to discuss another important matter in Miles City, replacing the 10 year old high school that was proving to be far too small and badly designed. There was also a discussion of water main extensions, both topics of which the Welfare League was stoutly in favor of.

My favorite part of the articles comes towards the end. “The meeting resolved itself into a long, sociable smoker and discussion in which the ladies did not join.”

Ladies, of course, did not smoke and were offended by the filthy manly habit.

We have a public health system which is now being severely tested. Let’s hope it works as well as the 1920 Welfare League hoped it would.

( Amorette Allison is a local history columnist.)