The general public's health has been foremost in the minds of many Americans since the COVID-19 pandemic began two years ago. Public health also was a subject of primary importance a century ago, during the pandemic initiated by the “Spanish flu.”
Louise Stevenson, professor of history and American Studies at Franklin & Marshall College, drew that parallel during a virtual address Monday for a monthly lecture series sponsored by the Lancaster Medical Heritage Museum.
Stevenson approached the subject by reviewing the career of Dr. Charles P. Stahr, a public health advocate who commanded the 111th Medical Company of the 103th Medical Battalion, 28th Division, U.S. Army. After the war, Stahr served as medical director of Lancaster General Hospital from 1919 to 1940.
After graduating from F&M in 1897 and earning his M.D. degree at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, Stahr joined the medical staff of LGH and became a public health advocate. He took that experience with him when he joined the National Guard in 1916 and when he led the 111th to France in 1918.
In the early years of the 20th century, Stahr served as the first medical inspector of the Lancaster Public Schools. He worked to eliminate outhouses attached to city schoolhouses and promoted other sanitary measures.
He introduced a free smallpox vaccination program for needy students. Lacking a vaccination certificate, students could not attend school.
To reduce transmission of disease when outbreaks of measles, chicken pox, and diphtheria occurred, he closed classrooms and schools until the danger passed.
“He also took public health to include education of school personnel and the public with a series of talks in the public schools to promote public health and newspaper articles for the public,” Stevenson said.
While medical inspector, Stahr served as secretary of the Lancaster City Board of Health and became concerned with milk as a source of disease. He wrote Lancaster’s first Pure Milk Ordinance in 1912. It required that milk had to come from cows that had been tested negative for bovine tuberculosis.
Stahr took his engagement with public health to the war front with service as a surgeon in the Pennsylvania National Guard in the conflict with Mexico in 1916 and as captain of the 111th Ambulance Corps in France.
Arriving on the European war front with the American Expeditionary Force in the spring of 1918, the medical unit entered the action during the AEF’s engagement in July 1918 during fierce battles at Château Thierry and then in September in the Argonne Forest.
Stevenson emphasized that the rapid delivery of the wounded to medical care via motorized ambulances sharply reduced the death rate. She illustrated her talk with drawings of how casualty evacuation worked from battlefield to field medical station to base hospital.
She also presented compelling information in the form of statistics: more Americans died of disease than of injuries during the war. Pneumonia, precipitated by influenza, caused almost half of those deaths.
Stahr’s medics treated all of these men at First Aid Dressing Stations (FADS), whether they had been wounded in battle or felled by influenza.
The virus had begun infecting Europeans on the home front and in the trenches in the spring of 1917, Stevenson said, and it continued to plague the world for several years after the war as allied troops returned to their countries.
Information on the Lancaster Medical Heritage Museum's lecture series can be found at lancastermedicalheritagemuseum.org/events/.
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes “The Scribbler'' column every Sunday. He welcomes comments and contributions at firstname.lastname@example.org.