This Day in NC History: First rural health department in U.S.

On February 12, 1912, Robeson County established the first rural health department in the United States.

State responsibility for public health began in 1877 when the legislature determined that officers of the Medical Society of North Carolina should make up the State Board of Health. That same year the General Assembly directed counties to appoint health boards consisting of practicing physicians, the mayor of the county seat, the chairman of the county commissioners and the city or county supervisor. Although some local boards did hire superintendents to work as public health practitioners, none created a department to carry out its work.

Free dental clinic for African American children in rural Mecklenberg County in 1923. Image from the State Archives.

Free dental clinic for African American children in rural Mecklenberg County
in 1923. Image from the State Archives.

The county health movement was a direct outgrowth of the battles against hookworm, typhoid fever and other diseases. In 1911, urban Guilford County became the first county in the state, and the second in the United States, to establish a health department.

Robeson County’s health department was the fourth in the country overall, and its roots can be traced to the local health board hiring Dr. B. W. Page in 1912. In Page’s first year, he examined 45 schools, inspected 500 rural homes (quarantining 118), vaccinated 525 schoolchildren and set up a lecture series.

The Robeson County Health Department was originally located in the basement of the courthouse and has since moved several times.

This Day in North Carolina History is a production of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources.

Filed in: Education

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