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Public Health in the Town of Boston, 1630–1822

Public Health in the Town of Boston, 1630–1822

John B. Blake

ISBN 9780674722507

Publication date: 01/01/1959

In this book, based almost exclusively on original source material, Dr. Blake takes a detailed look at the public health history of the town of Boston. Historically, the author tells us, public health may be viewed as the science and art of preventing disease and promoting health through organized community activity. A significant part of this study is the insight it offers into the early attitudes toward disease and death as well as other basic political, social, and economic questions.

Dr. Blake outlines the development of public health practice from occasional emergency measures to a continuing program for the prevention and control of certain epidemic diseases. The introduction and increasing use of smallpox inoculation and later of vaccination are described and their importance evaluated. The book also discusses the further developments in the 1790s and the following two decades that resulted from a series of yellow-fever epidemics in northern seaports, including the establishment of a board of health and its efforts to prevent recurrence of this disease. The prevention of other endemic infectious diseases, though far more important in their effect on the community’s health, was largely neglected. Nevertheless, the principles of notification, isolation, and quarantine had been established and the need for governmental activity to protect the public health, for special public health officials, and for expenditure of tax money for public health purposes had been recognized.

This study, restricted in time to the period before Boston became a city (1630–1822), deals with the early years of the public health movement, a period that has been largely neglected. In comparing Boston’s experience with that of other colonies and England, Dr. Blake presents the European background in both the theory and practice of epidemiology and public health. The colonies themselves, whose differences caused many contemporaries to despair of their ever becoming a single nation, were yet bound by an essential homogeneity. “By and large they had the same language, the same religion, the same inheritance of British social and political ideals. And by and large they had the same diseases. Thus the history of public health in Boston becomes significant for the whole American experience.”


  • Much can be said for the history of a problem limited in area and scope if it be significantly related to the world beyond… The author begins with the day the Massachusetts Bay Company limited the number of passengers in each ship as a health measure and ends with the dawn of the modern sanitary movement. Because he had to feel his way his book is methodologically as well as substantially valuable. Blake has neglected no source—official, periodical, monographic—and at no time does he fail to appreciate that contemporary measures reflected the best knowledge and experience… The story told here is one to inspire pride; it also reveals the need for many more such studies as a prelude to a full account of public health in the United States.

    —Charles F. Mullett, American Historical Review

Book Details

  • 278 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches
  • Harvard University Press