Days Gone By: The Early Days of the Williamson County Health Department

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By Rick Warwick

Sadly, few among us today remember the medical and social services provided by the Williamson County Health Department when we were largely rural and agricultural. The health department opened in 1921 when pellagra, smallpox, typhoid, ringworm, lice, bedbugs, impetigo and all the then fearful childhood diseases that were common throughout the countryside. Dr. L.M. Graves was the first director, followed by Dr. W.C. Williams, Dr. Knox Galloway, Dr. Don. C. Peterson, Dr. W.B. Farris, Dr. H.C. Stewart and Dr. Roy Settle. Old-timers in the county will remember Dr. R.H. Hutchinson, who served both as director of the local health department and the Tennessee Commissioner of Public Health. Today the Williamson County Health Department building is named in his honor.

Most notable of the county nurses of this early era were Katherine DeYoung, Cecile Ott Sparkman, Ruth Skelly Criddle, Pearl Kelly, Ellen Williams, Louise Buchanan, Margaret Lowe, Elizabeth Reid Lovell and Zetta Comer. These ladies were pioneer crusaders in promoting good health practices. They visited homes to teach mothers the basics in cleanliness and child care. Since most mothers delivered at home, these nurses assisted the local physicians and county midwives in prenatal and postnatal care. Special classes were established to train midwives in proper practices in delivering babies at home. County nurses made regular visits to the many one-room and two-room-schools cross the county, keeping medical charts on each student and administering the required vaccinations. Before nursing homes, the elderly and invalids were dependent on these angels of mercy to make regular visits to their homes for personal care and teaching their family members useful modern health care practices.

In 1931, the Williamson County Tuberculosis Study was opened, funded largely by the Rockefeller Foundation, to abate the large number of tubercular cases found across the county. TB tents were furnished patients who needed to sleep in fresh air and away from their family. The fight against TB was assisted by the Tennessee Health Department’s regular mobile X-ray unit visits. State employees Dr. E.F. Harrison and Ross Crutcher were headquartered here.

In 1937, the health department moved into a new two-story brick building behind the courthouse on Third Avenue South. Health services were administered out of this building until a larger facility was built in 1958 on West Main Street next to the new county hospital.

It hasn’t been too many years ago that couples wishing to get married in Tennessee had to visit the health department to have a blood test to check for venereal diseases. Other important services performed by the health department included inspection of restaurants, school cafeterias, swimming pools and the issuing of septic tank permits. To aid in country sanitation, wooden privies were furnished families who didn’t have them. Yes, as late as the 1930s, many families did not have outdoor privies, let alone indoor water closets.

When Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was perfected in 1955, the health department nurses and local physicians vaccinated the students at the schools. In 1957, the health department took the lead to serve the adult population by organizing adult clinics across the county. When Albert Sabin developed the oral antidote in 1961, the county nurses worked again with local physicians in administering this wonder drug on a sugar cube, which has practically eliminated the polio scourge from the face of the earth.

Today, the role of the health department is still important in our lives but apparently not as visible as before. When was the last time you visited the Williamson County Health Department at 1324 West Main Street in Franklin? It may be a good idea to stop by and thank them for all they have done and are doing to protect public health.

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