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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 74.djvu/237

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THE WORK OF BOARDS OF HEALTH

THE WORK OF BOARDS OF HEALTH[1]
By Dr. GEORGE A. SOPER

NEW YORK CITY

THE spirit of the laws by which matters of public health are administered rests upon the theory which underlies all forms of government, that is, that the state has the power to compel the ignorant, the selfish, the careless and the vicious to so regulate their lives and property that they shall not be a source of danger to others. It is an expression of the idea that the interests of no man can exceed the interests of his fellows. The welfare of the many is the supreme law.

Extraordinary powers have from early times been vested in the authorities charged with administering sanitary laws. The highest courts have declared that the administration of public health laws is fundamentally important and entitled to the support of the police power of the state. Public health authorities are in effect police officers charged with a special jurisdiction over the conditions which cause, aggravate or predispose to disease. In the exercise of their remarkable powers health authorities may restrain persons from contact with others, they may enter upon and even destroy private property and may exercise supervisory jurisdiction over trades and occupations.

Many years ago, the almost autocratic power enjoyed by health authorities was much more necessary than it is at present, for the highly contagious diseases have, through the operation of health laws, better personal and household hygiene and municipal sanitary works, been relegated to a comparatively unimportant place as a cause of death. Epidemics of high mortality and vast extent rarely take place in civilized countries to-day, and the need of a prompt, decisive exercise of great authority in this direction is consequently less often necessary than formerly.

At the same time, a new class of duties is growing upon health authorities. Some of these duties are plainly within the proper functions of health boards, while others appear to be less so. Among the obviously proper duties referred to are vaccination, the manufacture and distribution of antitoxin, the control of methods of sewage disposal and the sanitary management of milk and water supplies. Of less obvious appropriateness is the regulation by boards of health of such matters as the discharge of excessive quantities of smoke into the atmosphere of cities, the suppression of street noises, the hygienic care

  1. Paper read before a joint meeting of the National Municipal League and the American Civic Association at Pittsburg, Pa., November 16, 1908.