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Guide to the La Crosse, Wisconsin, Health Department Records, 1887-1982
La Crosse Series 018
Table of Contents
- Records of the City of La Crosse Health Department consist of meeting minutes. Minutes cover the time periods from April 29, 1887 to May 15, 1905; October 14, 1910 to December 1958; and January 1974 to November 10, 1982.
- Collection Title
- La Crosse, Wisconsin, Health Department Records
- Date of Materials
- La Crosse (Wis.). Health Dept.
- Call Number
- La Crosse Series 018
- 0.4 cubic feet
- Physical Description
- 1 archives box
- Language of Materials
- La Crosse Public Library Archives
[Identification of item], La Crosse, Wisconsin, Health Department Records, La Crosse Series 018, La Crosse Public Library Archives, La Crosse, WI
The first meeting of the new city Board of Health took place on April 29, 1887. The Board of Health served as the governing body of the Health Department. C. H. Berry was unanimously elected to serve as health officer in connection with his duties as fire marshal. At this first meeting, members agreed to post one thousand notices throughout the city to inform people to remove garbage from alleys. Berry was also concerned with removal of dead animals in the city. The board informed Berry that “it was left to the judgment of the Health Officer to dispose of such animals is it to him seemed best and to have it done as cheaply as possible” (Minutes, April 29, 1887). Meetings of the board of health throughout the 1890s and into the early 1900s focused primarily on garbage collection, the control of contagious diseases, the condition of the city pest house, and the slaughter of animals within the city.
Health officers changed almost yearly until the appointment of Anthony M. Murphy as city health officer on April 16, 1907. Prior to becoming health officer, he had several years experience in hospital work. Murphy was a one-man department and was given broad control of public health at the time. Murphy’s duties included inspecting the city’s 4000 open vaults (outhouses), ensuring that garbage was collected properly to avoid the spread of disease, and cleaning up the city’s milk and water supply.
At the time of Murphy’s appointment, local dairy barns were filthy and many cattle were diseased with bovine tuberculosis. The state veterinarian pronounced the local milk supply was one of the worst in the state. Little attempt was made to safely preserve foods, particularly dairy products. In 1908, the first eight sections of the milk ordinance were adopted. In 1909, the health department began a campaign with the Wisconsin Anti-Tuberculosis Association to weed out the tubercular cows from local herds (La Crosse Tribune, March 3, 1946). The slaughter of diseased cows was ordered. La Crosse residents were angry and didn’t want Murphy to intrude on their daily lives and in their businesses.
In order to clean up the water supply, Murphy collected samples of water from property owners’ wells. In 1906, almost every property owner had his own well. Many were drilled close to open-air toilets (La Crosse Tribune, March 3, 1946). Murphy sent the water samples on to Madison for testing and urged property owners who were found in violation to make changes. Residents who did not make changes were faced with court action. Looking back on his early days as health officer, Murphy remembered that he had more than 25 violators of various health codes in court at one time, but juries of the time were less likely to convict residents.
When carrying out his duties as health officer, Murphy was threatened many times including an incident in which he was chased by a resident carrying a pitchfork. Murphy began to carry a .38 caliber revolver and a weighted billy club for his own safety.
Contagious diseases such as diphtheria, small pox, and scarlet fever were of major concern during the early days of La Crosse. The need to care for the sick, educate family members in caring for ill relatives, and further educate all residents to help prevent the spread of disease led to the hiring in 1912 of Miss Alice Patte, the first public health nurse employed by the city health department. When the tasks proved too overwhelming, Patte resigned 90 days later. Miss Marie Peterson reluctantly succeeded Patte and assisted the sick at home and in schools. It was up to the health officer and the nurse to contact those they suspected of carrying contagious diseases, secure cultures to confirm that those who were sick were carrying a contagious disease, and follow up with the necessary measures to control the contagion. This often meant quarantining those who carried contagious diseases. Quarantining was an unpopular practice; if a whole family was quarantined along with the sick family member, wage earners could not go to work. Many workers did not have sick leave as a benefit. The health department was occasionally presented with bills from quarantined families to cover expenses incurred while the family was under quarantine (Minutes, May 12, 1937 and May 31, 1928). These requests were forwarded other agencies for further consideration.
Due to the large caseload carried by the health officer and the public health nurse, the local hospitals furnished student nurses to assist the health department. The student nursing program was gradually phased out, and the city health department began to hire more nurses. By 1938, there were five public health nurses with one supervising nurse. Each of the public health nurses served one area within the city. Their duties included instructing families on how to care for chronically ill family members, follow-up calls for newborns, routine follow-up to homes of school children ill two or more days, and involvement in pre-school health programs.
While an improvised laboratory existed at the health department for a number of years, modern equipment was added in 1938 (La Crosse Tribune, April 16, 1939). It was then possible to test milk and water for impurities without sending samples to the state health department in Madison.
Other health concerns faced by the department included the spread of polio. In 1941, the Wisconsin Auxiliary of the Junior Chamber of Commerce (the Jacettes) dedicated an iron lung to be used in the treatment of polio. The iron lung was housed at the G. Heileman Brewing Company and was transported to those who needed it within an eight county region. On September 18, 1945, the Health Department prohibited all gatherings outside of school for children under the age of 16 due to the spread of polio. School was not closed because it was the only way the health department could keep track of who was ill. While it is unclear when or if the ban was lifted (congregating of children and young adults was censured again by the Board of Health on August 13, 1946), concern over the spread of polio remained an issue until May 1955 when La Crosse county school children began receiving the Salk polio vaccine.
Health conditions improved in La Crosse over time. In 1931, it was reported that infant death rate had steadily decreased since 1907 (La Crosse Tribune, January 1, 1931). By 1942, Murphy noted better compliance with health department regulations and that use of vaccines were becoming more extensive (La Crosse Tribune, January 5, 1942).
The health department continued to grow. By 1939, the department consisted of Health Officer Murphy, five district nurses, a supervising nurse, a laboratory technician, an inspector, and several other assistants (La Crosse Tribune, April 16, 1939). A dental clinic, sponsored by the Red Cross, was first mentioned in the health department’s 1927 annual report. By 1929, a dental hygienist was employed by the health department and regularly saw patients. The 1933 annual report listed both a dentist and hygienist working as part of the department’s dental clinic. The dental clinics continued for many years and extra clinics were added during World War II to see children whose own dentists were serving in the war. By September 1962, the department’s dental clinic provided service to children between 5 and 13 years old whose parents qualified financially. Since so many children qualified for care at the clinics, children were not recalled for a six-month follow-up check up and instead those follow-up appointments were scheduled for a year later. The dental clinics appear to have been phased out and, by 1970, no dental personnel or clinics were noted in the health department’s annual report.
Murphy served as health officer for forty years from April 16, 1907, to July 31, 1947. Dr. James B. Perrin, who began work on Oct. 1, 1947, succeeded Murphy. Perrin was medical doctor engaged in private practice before he entered the public health field in 1937. Upon assuming the position in La Crosse, Perrin expressed concern over children who lived outside the city but attended city schools. When these children became ill with a communicable disease, they were outside the city health department’s jurisdiction. Consequently, Perrin recommended the idea of a city-county health department.
Controlling the disease carrying insect population has been a priority of the city as early as the mid-1940s. City parks and dumps were regularly sprayed with the insecticide DDT beginning in 1947 to control the city’s mosquito and fly populations. Fly traps, which used DDT, were also used beginning in 1950. The city of La Crosse stopped using DDT by 1966 and used a variety of insecticides until about 1971 when the program was discontinued. A rise in encephalitis, an inflammatory disease of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord which is carried by mosquitoes, became a major concern of the health department. The La Crosse area averaged about 35 encephalitis cases each year before the county began a mosquito control program in the 1970s.
Perrin resigned as health officer effective October 1, 1948, and was followed by Dr. Garland Weidner who began on October 1, 1948. Weidner later resigned over salary differences effective February 15, 1951. Edward F. Peters then served as acting health officer for eight and a half years until his death on July 21, 1959.
Dr. Clinton Higgins began serving as health officer on June 1, 1960. By 1962, health department staff included six public health nurses, deputy registrar, clerks and stenographers, three sanitarians, laboratory technicians, and dental staff. A public health dental clinic provided care for eligible patients four times a week.
Dr. Higgins resigned in late 1964 and was succeeded by Dr. Joseph A. Concello in Oct. 1965. Dr. Concello resigned in January 1966. Dr. Leo G. Joseph became city health officer on Dec. 1, 1966, and was followed by George Baldwin who became the city health officer in 1971.
The health department began a home nursing service, called Home Health Agency, with a focus on rehabilitation in late 1965 (La Crosse Tribune, Jan. 9, 1967). Nurses made home visits to change dressings, give physical or speech therapy and provide other bedside nursing services. Patients were referred to the program by their doctor or by the hospital, and nurses reported back to the patients’ doctors. By August 1971, the health department’s nursing program consisted of seven full-time and two-part time registered nurses, a home health aide, a secretary, and a supervising nurse. 500 local families were being served at the time.
When gonorrhea reached epidemic proportions by May 1976, the city health board acted by winning approval for a venereal disease clinic to be located in the city health department offices. The clinic opened on October 11, 1976, and by the end of the first year 518 persons were seen. By 1980, the number of gonorrhea cases had decreased by 64%. However, chlamydia became a problem in the 1980s, and by 1988, there were 511 cases in the county. Due to the health department’s consistent program to identify, screen, and follow-up on chlamydia cases, the number of cases declined to 199 in 1992. Before the clinic eventually closed in Dec. 1994, due to its significantly decreased caseload, more than 9000 patients had been seen.
On June 6, 1978, William R. Schmidt took over as city health officer. He replaced George Baldwin who died of lung cancer on Nov. 19, 1977.
A merger between the La Crosse city and county health department was discussed during the mid-1970s and into the early 1980s. In May 1976, a City-County Liaison Committee recommended merger of the city health department and the county health nursing service. County supervisors wanted to wait to see how similar merger situations worked out elsewhere in the state, and the merger continued to be debated. County supervisors were also concerned about a rise in taxes for county residents due to a merger.
Finally in 1982, renewed efforts were made to merge the two departments. Concern arose over where the city/county health department offices would be located, whether or not the county would reimburse the city for the health department laboratory equipment, and the job status of current La Crosse City Health Department employees. After discussion, plans for the merger went ahead, and the La Crosse County Board decided to house most merged health department offices in the Grandview Building at 1707 Main Street in La Crosse. The laboratory, environmental control, and vector control offices remained at city hall. The county also agreed to pay the city $27,458 per year for laboratory facilities at city hall (of this amount, $19,125 paid for rent and $8333 paid for lab supplies). The merger went into effect as of January 1, 1983, and William Schmidt was appointed director of the county health department on January 20, 1983.
La Crosse city residents saw a slight decrease in the amount they paid for services since they were no longer paying for upkeep of the La Crosse city and county health departments. Those residents outside the city of La Crosse had a slight increase in their taxes due to the merger. County residents experienced additional benefits with the merger including additional inspections of restaurants, food and milk product sampling, and water sampling of municipal wells. Schmidt later resigned in July 1983 to work for the Wisconsin State Department of Health. Douglas Mormann was hired as La Crosse County Health Officer on February 27, 1984.
The county health department continued its nursing service after the merger. However, nine of the former city health department’s nurses formed a private nursing service, the La Crosse Visiting Nurses Association (LVNA). About 125 out of 325 of the patients formerly serviced by the city health department’s nurses, agreed to be seen by the newly formed organization. In February 1983, Lutheran Hospital and St. Francis Medical Center proposed providing specialized nursing care to their recently discharged patients. While the Western Wisconsin Health Systems Agency Board denied the hospitals’ initial request, by November 1985, both hospitals were providing home nursing services to their patients.
The county examined whether or not they should continue providing home nursing services to patients. In September 1995, Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center, St. Francis Medical Center, and the LVNA proposed taking over the county’s nursing program. County nurses were concerned over the loss of their jobs. In October 1995, the county board of health voted to continue the nursing program, and while the issue rose again in 2002, a county committee unanimously voted, in May 2003, that nursing services continue to be provided by the county.
AIDS became a concern in the 1980s, and by May 1985, the County Health Department began testing for the HIV virus. The department began a program to train teenagers to educate their peers about the dangers of AIDS and won an award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. AIDS programs provided by the La Crosse County Health Department served residents in La Crosse, Crawford, Vernon, Monroe, Trempealeau, and Jackson counties. In July 1997, the State of Wisconsin reorganized the regions within the state that would provide AIDS services, reducing the number of AIDS service organizations from nine to five. The La Crosse County Health Department was no longer able to provide AIDS services to county residents, and that task fell to the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, which, in January 1998, opened an office in the Grandview Center, 1707 Main Street, La Crosse. The county continued to provide HIV testing and counseling.
The health department offered many immunization clinics over the years to vaccinate against diseases such as swine flu, rubella, Hemophilus Influenza B (HIB), chicken pox, and others. Sometimes the immunization clinics were free to encourage more people to be vaccinated. Lead screenings have also been offered.
After the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and anthrax scare that closely followed, the La Crosse County Health Department spent $17,300 in bioterrorism related expenses by responding to 66 suspected anthrax incidents and testing 109 letters or envelopes; no evidence of anthrax was found. Other expenses included attending training sessions and giving presentations.
La Crosse County Health Department health officer Doug Mormann reported in the 2002 annual report that most La Crosse residents enjoy good health, but that heart disease was the leading cause of death in La Crosse County followed by cancer. Health department plans for 2004 include work on emergency response plans for bioterrorism and possible disease outbreaks of diseases such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), West Nile Virus, or smallpox. The department will also focus on the issue of obesity and encourage La Crosse residents to make healthier food choices. Time will be spent on developing strategic health plans to anticipate long-range needs in the department.
Scope and Contents
The records consist of minutes taken at meetings held by the La Crosse City Health Department. There are two gaps in the minutes. No minutes are included for the period between May 15, 1905 and October 14, 1910. No minutes are included from January 1959 to December 1973.
La Crosse Public Library Archives 1994800 Main St.
La Crosse, Wisconsin, 54601
Access to Materials
Materials in this collection are available for patron use.
(Accession no. 1994.006) Transferred from the Office of the City Clerk, 1994
Processed by Anita Taylor Doering, 1994
- (Annual reports)
- City of La Crosse Health [and Vital Statistics] Department, 1907-1980
- (Annual reports)
- La Crosse County Health Department and Nursing Service, 1919-2002
- (La Crosse Series 022)
- La Crosse, Wisconsin, Common Council Records
- (Clipping file)
- La Crosse--City--Health Department
- (Clipping file)
- La Crosse--County--Health Department
- (Local publications)
- AIDS/HIV Project newsletter
- (Local publications)
- La Crosse County Health Department Newsletter
- (Local publications)
- LAHI News (La Crosse Area Health Initiative)
Controlled Access Headings
- La Crosse (Wis.). Health Dept.
- Municipal government--Wisconsin--La Crosse
- Public health--Wisconsin--La Crosse
- Public records--Wisconsin--La Crosse County