Learning from Experience

By Gist, Ginger L. | Journal of Environmental Health, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Learning from Experience


Gist, Ginger L., Journal of Environmental Health


"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

- George Santayana

Two very important environmental health organizations celebrated anniversaries this year - the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS, 200 years) and the World Health Organization (WHO, 50 years). As the new millennium approaches, we have a tendency to look to the future; however, we cannot understand our future as a profession without understanding our past.

PHS was created on July 16, 1778, when President John Adams signed "An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen." This act created a tax on the salaries of sailors. The revenues created were then used both to build hospitals and to provide medical care for merchant seamen. The first Surgeon General, John Maynard Woodworth, was appointed in 1871. In 1883, he pushed for the creation of what is known today as the Commissioned Corps.

Since its inception, the PHS has had environmental health as one of its cornerstones. In the 19th century most contagious diseases, such as cholera, yellow fever, and bubonic plague, could be kept in check with the sound sanitation practices promoted by PHS. As our society became more complex, PHS evolved to meet the new health needs of our nation. Many advances in environmental health, such as the identification of oral cancer in radium dial painters, of Legionnaire's disease, and of hantavirus, are directly attributable to PHS.

Today the agencies of the PHS - the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Indian Health Service, the National Institutes of Health, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - are composed of approximately 6,100 commissioned officers and 50,000 civilians. Together these agencies work to improve the environmental health not only of U.S. citizens, but also of the global community.

The younger of the two organizations, WHO, was created on April 7, 1948, as a specialized agency of the United Nations. It was created to provide "international cooperation for improved health conditions" for all member nations. WHO adopted a very broad definition for health: "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity" Two of the initial six priorities of WHO addressed environmental health: (1) malaria control and (2) amelioration of environmental conditions responsible for a significant proportion of deaths throughout the world. …

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