Catt. Co. Board Of Health Turns 90

OLEAN – Health practices have come a long way over the last century. Cattaraugus County has been on the cutting edge of that evolution for the past 90 years.

In fact, an organization in the county has been credited with playing a major role in how rural public health is approached. As the Cattaraugus County Board of Health hits its 90th anniversary, some of those achievements and mentions have resurfaced as a reminder to the importance of proactive public health programs.

Before the creation of the county health board, residents had no centralized authority to monitor the part-time municipal health office and school health inspector. The only central facility in the county was the Rocky Crest Sanitorium, opened in 1916, to give tuberculosis patients a place to go for treatment and to prevent the spread of the illness. The sanitorium was located on Route 16, near Olean.

That landscape started to change in 1921 when some medically minded organizations started to question how rural health was administered. The health board was organized in 1923 as a demonstration project as part of the Milbank Memorial Fund. The mission – according to a publication on the project, written in 1931 by C.E.A. Winslow entitled “Health on the Farm and in the Village: A Review and Evaluation of the Cattaraugus County Health Demonstration with Special Reference to Its Lessons for Other Rural Areas” – was “to demonstrate … whether by intensive application of known health measures the extent of sickness could be further and materially diminished and mortality rates further and subsequently reduced.” The board was the first to exist in New York state.

The project, as outlined in the original mission, was deemed to be an overwhelming success and a model of other rural public health programs around the world. Even a Sept. 26, 1931, edition of The British Medical Journal reported on the early success of the program, concluding that the program was one of which public health officials in Great Britain should take notice.

“This survey of rural hygiene can be strongly recommended to public health workers in Great Britain, for it shows what can be done in a area undeveloped so far as essential health services are concerned, and it also sets forth clearly the difficulties that have to be overcome,” the journal says.

By 1929, the first fully trained public health engineer had been appointed and Dr. Leverett D. Bristol became the first County Health officer and director of the Demonstration Project, which was based in Olean. John Walrath was appointed the first president of the the County Health Board. The three oversaw several bureaus, or areas of health specialization, to include communicable disease, laboratory, statistical record and health education, among others.

In a very short time, results were statistically visible with an area medical professional finding that the death from tuberculosis, a major problem in those days, fell from about 55 per 100,000 people in 1929 to 25 per 100,000 in 1930. Similarly, infant mortality rates fell significantly.

The program had developed into such a success that a report out of Yale University, 25 years after the start of the project that we now call the County Board of Health, said, “The entire progress made in the United States in developing health services for rural areas owes its inception to Cattaraugus County.”

Development and progress were not always a positive side of the rural public health system, however, according to current Public Health Director Dr. Kevin Watkins. “For quite some time, there was an opposition from medical society,” he said. “They denounced the entire program in the mid 1920s.”

Cattaraugus County’s Board of Health and its accomplishments have been recognized by governors of the state and even some presidents, to include President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Watkins said. He said the mission of public health is not fully known by those who have benefited from it.

“Public health is that heart disease that did not develop. It is the epidemic that never happened,” he said.

Through the advancements made possible through the demonstration project that became the Cattaraugus County Board of Health, those who live in rural areas are given a better chance at a healthy life, even safe drinking water. County services have even helped in making advancement in milk production.

Currently, the Cattaraugus County Health Department is responsible for services in childhood development, emergency medical, environmental health, laboratory, home care, preventative, reproductive and WIC. The department works within communities throughout the county that have less access to services, such as the Amish community in the western region of Cattaraugus County, to ensure proper immunizations, preventive health check ups and other health-related services.