American Medical Biographies/Harris, Elisha

Harris, Elisha (1824–1884).

Elisha Harris, pioneer statistician and expert on public health, was born at Westminster, Vermont, March 5, 1824. The son of a farmer, he attended schools in the neighborhood and helped his father on the farm; when sufficiently advanced he taught school and then studied medicine under Dr. S. B. Woolworth, graduating at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, in 1849, and beginning practice in that city.

In 1855 he was appointed superintendent and physician-in-chief of the Quarantine Hospital on Staten Island, and in 1859 was given charge of the floating hospital anchored below the Narrows facing the sea.

During the Civil War he was a leading spirit in sanitation and with Henry C. Bellows and others organized the National Sanitary Commission; he invented a railway ambulance and received a bronze medal from the Paris Exposition of 1867; the Société des Sécours aux Blessés awarded him a silver medal. His ambulance was used in the Franco-Prussian War.

At the close of the war, Harris supervised the sanitary survey of New York. His tenement house survey was a thorough going investigation fruitful in results to the poor of the city.

When the New York Metropolitan Board of Health was organized in 1866 he was appointed register of records, a post ably filled until 1870, when a change of administration brought about his retirement. In 1873 he was made registrar of vital statistics, but when city politics changed in 1876, this position was taken from him. He remained faithful to the work of sanitation in spite of his ill-treatment at the hands of the depraved politicians, who then, as now, ever keep a more or less continuous throttling grip on New York City.

He was ever a prolific writer on public health questions; as samples of his writings and prophetic vision we may cite: "Four Reports on Quarantine Hospitals, Yellow Fever and Cholera"; "An Essay on Pestilential Diseases"; "Ventilation of American Dwellings"; "Review of the Sanitary Experiences of the Crimean Campaign"; "A History of the Work and Purposes of the United States Sanitary Commission"; "A Practical Manual on Infectious and Contagious Diseases in Camps, Hospitals and Ships"; "The Report on the Sanitary Condition and Wants of New York"; "The Criminality of Drunkenness"; "Nine Reports on Reformatory and Penal Institutions"; "Six Reports of the Bureau of Vital Statistics of New York."

Harris maintained a wide correspondence with distinguished sanitarians throughout the United States and Europe.

When the legislature organized the State Board of Health, in 1880, he was one of the three commissioners, and was unanimously elected secretary and superintendent of vital statistics.

He died at Albany, January 31, 1884.

Med. Rec., New York, 1884, vol. xxv, p. 166.
Jour. Amer. Med. Assoc., 1884, vol. ii, p. 194.
Appleton's Cyclop. Amer. Biog., New York, 1887.