Sanitation and the Prevention of Epidemics

19-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Sunday, October 24, 1914: << no entry>>

Public Health Expert, Dr. Manton Carrick (Source: Ladies Home Journal, September, 1914)
Public Health Expert, Dr. Manton Carrick (Source: Ladies Home Journal, September, 1914)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Sometimes I’m amazed how a hundred-year-old  article can seem uncannily similar to current news stories. Since Grandma didn’t write anything a hundred years ago today, I’m going to go off on a tangent.

Texas had a meningitis epidemic in 1912—and the state was trying to figure out how to prevent future epidemics. Here’s some quotes from an article in the September, 1914 issue of Ladies Home Journal:

The Man Who is Cleaning Up Texas

Down in Dallas, Texas lives Doctor Manton M. Carrick, a man who studies medicine to learn to live. All about him in that great open country of the Southwest people were dying of tuberculosis, meningitis, and other equally preventable diseases.

Two years ago Texas was panic-stricken at the spread of a meningitis epidemic that for some time baffled the most frantic efforts of all the medical authorities. Dying out as it had begun, without any apparent cause or reason, the epidemic left the people aghast at the destruction wrought and anxious for a remedy for the future. “How shall we prevent the recurrence of this dread disease?” was the universal question.

Into this dubious crisis there came the suggestion that a cleaner Texas would mean a healthier Texas.

To the supervision of this war for sanitation was appointed Dr. Carrick. Dr. Carrick’s method of procedure was always simple and straightforward.

Arriving at a town, and depositing his baggage at the hotel, he wasted no time in preliminaries, but went straight out to his work. Parks, streets and alleys; water-supply and drainage systems; garbage disposal; general appearance of homes, condition of vacant lots; ventilation, sanitation and evidences of care taken of public buildings; toilet and lighting facilities in schools, prevalence of flies, mosquitoes and vermin; methods of storekeepers and butchers—none of these escaped his searching eye.

With his pad and pencil he tabulated the relative condition of every town that he visited, and when he could escape the importunities of the townspeople for a lecture on public health, was off to the next city. In every town he judged the points of the town—to use his own words—“as the points of a hog, a steer or a chicken would be judged.”

At first the visits of the Doctor were looked upon with some distrust and dismay by the town authorities. Bat as news of the campaign spread and the citizens of the towns learned that Doctor Carrick’s errand was on of helpfulness, the dormant spirit of civic pride became, thoroughly aroused and the towns set to work with a will.

Dr. Carrick and Texas have indeed “made good health contagious.”

19 thoughts on “Sanitation and the Prevention of Epidemics

  1. A timely reminder that common sense and cleanliness go a long way in the fight against disease. Lack of poverty also helps. In 1918, between October and December, 8600 people died in NZ during the great flu pandemic. We are nowhere near that stage yet and I hope we won’t ever get there.

    1. Thanks for sharing the link. The PowerPoints were interesting–though it’s a little scary how easily microbes can fill available “niches.”

  2. Poor Texas always is the butt of jokes, but the principles espoused by the good Dr. Carrick still are a part of life here. I thought right away about the terrific “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign of a few years ago. Assorted beloved Texas muscians offered their own versions of “keep it clean, folks.” My favorite always was “a href=””> Willie Nelson’s version.

    Interestingly, a clinic right down the road from me was quarantined yesterday afternoon because of a possible Ebola case. The fellow was taken to Galveston, to the special unit that’s been set up The good news is that it wasn’t Ebola.

    What impressed me most was the response of our city government. Within an hour of the incident, everyone signed up to the emergency alert system had an email or text linking to a report with all the details that the news wasn’t reporting. And, within about fifteen minutes of the man being cleared, we had another notice, with details.

    Good communication is so important in such situations. It seems Dr. Carrick also was a good communicator — just like Willy.

    1. I’m impressed with all that Texas is doing in many different areas. . . And even a hundred years ago, my sense is that Texas was ahead of many states. The article highlighted Texas–so there obviously were some issues–but I think that Texas probably improved sanitation and public health before many other states since it was featured in the magazine.

    1. Epidemics can sure be challenging–but hopefully some new public health heros and heroines will figure out how to get the current epidemic under control.

  3. My niece almost died of meningitis when she was 2 years old – she’s 29 now – it was a scary time. Diseases are more frightening to us when we still don’t know enough about them or how they are transmitted. My dad was a microbiologist who studied zoonotic viruses and I miss having him around to talk to about the recent Ebola outbreak. I wound up buying a book about it to get some of my questions answered…

    1. Whew, it’s so hard when a small child becomes gravely ill. Thank goodness everything turned out okay.

      I bet your father would have had some very knowledgeable opinions about the Ebola outbreak. Based on what I’ve read about him in your blog, he always sounded like such a thoughtful person.

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