Health Commissioners records
Collection REC0050 - RG 036. Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
742.5 cubic feet (1,477 boxes (11 oversize) and 5 flat file drawers)
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Immediate Source of Acquisition
Separated Materials Note
Records from each calendar year were arranged together regardless of if a new commissioner took over in the middle of the year. The archivists did not disturb this arrangement. Therefore, the records from the beginning of a commissioner’s tenure may be found with the preceding commissioner’s records, depending on the date they took office.
The archivists retained the order of the material that was apparent from when it arrived at the Municipal Archives, though some reorganization was necessary to maintain consistent alphabetical or chronological arrangement. Original folders titles were retained. Any folder titles appearing in brackets were conceived by the archivist. Records in sub-subgroups 12 through 18 were often incomplete and haphazard as compared with the records in the first half of the collection. These later sub-subgroups required more organizational intervention from the archivists.
City personnel records have been weeded as have patient records, and duplicate reports and memos.
Some of the major trends and events the collection covers include regulating the milk supply, vaccinating the city against polio, tackling drug addiction and sexually-transmitted diseases in periods of changing social norms, focusing on maternal and child health, and answering citizens’ complaints and questions. There is a wealth of material about polio, the AIDS crisis, the administration of city health clinics, and Medicaid.
The collection documents the ways in which the department has been impacted by the city’s economic circumstances and federal policy towards health care. These changes are reflected in the organization of the records. Records from the 1970s, when the city was undergoing fiscal insolvency, are incomplete.
This collection of records begins at the onset of the Great Depression, when ideas were circulating about how much and what kind of services the government should provide for its people. Under the New Deal, the U.S. government pumped money into New York government agencies to bolster services for struggling residents and put them to work by financing the building of new housing, schools, and public works projects. This enabled the Department of Health to fully implement a program that had been floating around the Department as an idea for more than a decade. The Department divided into 30 health districts, with the goal of comparing health markers geographically and establishing locally tailored health services in city-operated clinics. Within the next decade, 14 district health centers were constructed, as was a new headquarters for the Department. Residents could avail themselves of many free and/or low-cost services such as lab tests, vaccinations, tuberculosis screening, and maternal and child health education. Staff doctors and nurses also went out into the communities to monitor a variety of conditions including tuberculosis and venereal diseases.
During World War II the Department expanded services for women and new mothers whose husbands were serving and tied health issues to patriotism in its education and outreach efforts. The scope of the Department’s services continued to expand post World War II and benefitted from the booming economy. The Department undertook large-scale vaccination campaigns including one against smallpox in 1947 under threat of an outbreak and in 1954 against polio, which eliminated incidence of the disease within a decade. In 1963 the city disseminated the new measles vaccine. Health officials put renewed focus on infant and maternal mortality rates and waded into providing contraception. Acceptance of the efficacy of antibiotics helped contain some infectious diseases that had posed a much bigger threat in prior decades.
By the late 1960s, the city’s looming financial crisis and insolvency coupled with the reorganization of city government under Mayor John Lindsay left the Department of Health without the resources and clout it had come to expect. Lindsay grouped the Department of Health, Department of Hospitals, Community Mental Health Board, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner under a new umbrella agency called the Health Services Administration, placing an additional level of bureaucracy between commissioners and the mayor. This relationship is reflected in the records. The city’s public hospitals were overrun and in dire condition and received more of the resources and focus of City Hall at this time. The Health Services Administration and most of Lindsay’s other superagencies were ultimately dismantled in 1977 under Mayor Abraham Beame and the Department of Health regained its autonomy.
During the 1970s, more and more money was cut from city agencies each year. The Department curtailed services at its clinics, closed clinics and dropped programs deemed nonessential. The city struggled to keep salaries competitive with the private sector and therefore the Department of Health was unable to attract the caliber of professional staff it needed. Meanwhile, New York City had been undergoing dramatic demographic and social changes that the city struggled to respond to. The health-related consequences of these changes were worsening homelessness, narcotics addiction, alcoholism, venereal diseases, lead poisoning, and other environmental and housing concerns tied to poverty. The Department put its scant resources toward these urgent problems while becoming increasingly reliant on federal, state, and private funding for these crucial programs. It also gave the state control over some programs, such as methadone treatment.
While some of the Department’s functions were stripped away in the 1960s and 1970s, it played vital role in at least two specific areas: Medicaid and abortion. The Department of Health was the entity responsible for launching and administering Medicaid for millions of New Yorkers in 1966. Department officials established the care standards for reimbursement from the program. In 1970, New York State legalized abortion prior to the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. City health officials created the guidelines for obtaining abortions within the five boroughs, including prescribing who could perform the procedure and where and how to report statistics.
The Department of Health was regaining its footing after the fiscal crisis of the 1970s when HIV/AIDS appeared. The Department mobilized epidemiological and investigative efforts to figure out how the illness was spread and coordinated with community groups but struggled to secure federal funding as the U.S. government continued to cut spending to health programs. The Department of Health returned to a more active role in public health even as it anticipated the crisis would continue to worsen in the coming years. City government, including DOH, was widely and famously criticized for not being more proactive about prevention and education. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the city suffered additional financial downturns and the Department faced more drastic budget cuts, paring it down even further. Funding for AIDS programs, however, remained a priority.
Even as it took on new and urgent responsibilities over the 20th century, the health department maintained its original role of safeguarding aspects of everyday New Yorkers’ environments including food, milk, consumer products, pets and animals, air, beach/water quality, pest control, and housing and property conditions. The city’s Department of Health predated New York State Department of Health and mostly maintained its own separate regulations. The city’s Health Code (originally called the Sanitary Code), which contains all of these rules, became increasingly robust over this time period. Some of the Department’s most pronounced efforts in the quality of life realm include sustained work to ensure the public, especially infants, had safe milk to drink during the early part of the 20th century, mandating window guards for apartment buildings in the 1970s, and banning indoor smoking in the 1980s.
The Department of Health has continued to provide core services as political and economic forces have moved the country more toward private modes of health care over of the 20th century.
- Colgrove, James Keith. Epidemic City: The Politics of Public Health in New York. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011.
- Protecting Public Health in New York City: 200 Years of Leadership; 1805-2005, The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, April 2005. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/bicentennial/historical-booklet.pdf
Dates of Commissioners' Tenures
- Shirley W. Wynne
- August 1, 1928–January 1, 1934
- John L. Rice
- January 1, 1934–July 16, 1942
- Ernest Lyman Stebbins
- July 16, 1942–March 4, 1946
- Edward M. Bernecker
- March 4, 1946–March 13, 1946
- Israel Weinstein
- March 13, 1946–November 3, 1947
- Harry Stoll Mustard
- November 3, 1947–January 1, 1950
- John Friend Mahoney
- January 1, 1950–January 1, 1954
- Leona Baumgartner
- January 1, 1954–October 2, 1962
- George James
- October 2, 1962–October 1965
- John R. Philp
- October 1965–January 14, 1966 (acting)
- Arthur Bushel
- January 14, 1966–June 1, 1966 (acting)
- Howard Junior Brown
- June 1, 1966–December 15, 1966
- Edward O'Rourke
- December 15, 1966–May 28, 1969
- Mary C. McLaughlin
- May 28, 1969–January 17, 1972
- Joseph Anthony Cimino
- January 17, 1972–January 7, 1974
- Lowell E. Bellin
- January 7, 1974–January 3, 1977
- Pascal James Imperato
- January 3, 1977–March 31, 1978
- Reinaldo Antonio Ferrer
- March 31, 1978–November 28, 1981
- David Judson Sencer
- November 28, 1981–March 11, 1986
- Stephen C. Joseph
- March 11, 1986–January 19, 1990
- Woodrow A. Myers, Jr.
- January 19, 1990–June 11, 1991
- Shirley W. Wynne, 1928-1933
- John L. Rice, 1934-1942
- Ernest Lyman Stebbins, 1943-1945
- Edward M. Bernecker, 1946
- Israel Weinstein, 1946-1947
- Harry Stoll Mustard, 1948-1949
- John F. Mahoney, 1950-1953
- Leona Baumgartner, 1954-1962
- George James, 1963-1965
- John R. Philp, Arthur Bushel, and Howard Junior Brown, 1966
- Edward M. O'Rourke, 1967-1969
- Mary McLaughlin, 1970
- Joseph Anthony Cimino, 1973
- Lowell E. Bellin, 1974-1977
- Reinaldo Antonio Ferrer, 1977-1981
- David Judson Sencer, 1982-1986
- Stephen C. Joseph, 1987-1989
- Woodrow A. Myers, Jr., 1989-1991
- Guide to the records of the Health Commissioners, 1928-1991
- Katie Ehrlich, Clinton Johnson, Sheana Corbridge, Ian Kern, Rachel Greer
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- This finding aid has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this finding aid do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.