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Tennessee Department of Health Turns 90

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 | 04:42am

NASHVILLE – On the chilly morning of Feb. 1, 1923, the Tennessee Department of Health came into existence, created by an act of the Tennessee General Assembly. The establishment of public health as a department 90 years ago is being lauded as a landmark event in state history.

“A baby born in Tennessee today is expected to live approximately 28 percent longer, nearly 17 years more, than a baby born in 1923, and that is due in no small part to nine decades of service by public health officials,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said. “In 1923, polio, malaria, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and smallpox were common illnesses. Today, some are completely removed as threats while others are rarely seen. Every day, Tennesseans and visitors to our state are impacted in many ways by the department’s work. We are safer, healthier and have important vital records because of the Tennessee Department of Health’s critical efforts during the last 90 years.”

“While we’re certainly proud of past accomplishments, we know the health of individuals and communities can change quickly if we’re not vigilant,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “In 1923, 80 of every 1,000 babies born in Tennessee did not survive the first year of life. Today, fewer than eight of 1,000 don’t survive. While that’s a dramatic improvement, we are not satisfied, just as our forebears in public health weren’t satisfied with 80. But that reminds us if we stay focused on protecting, promoting and improving public health, we can and do make dramatic gains over time.”

Prior to 1923, there was a hodge-podge of efforts across Tennessee to address sanitation, epidemics, recordkeeping and other tasks associated with improving public health. Throughout the 1800s, recurrent outbreaks of illnesses, most notably yellow fever and cholera, prompted leaders in the medical community to call for a state board of public health. The first such board came into being in 1877. Between 1877 and 1923, the board, which was at first unfunded, addressed the need for regulations of food and drugs, school sanitation, fighting epidemics, preserving health records and establishing public health services in counties.

Some milestones of the last 90 years include:

1925:  The Division of Laboratories was created on a full-time basis, with the main facility in Nashville and branch labs in Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville. Additional branch labs were opened in Johnson City in 1928 and Jackson in 1942.

1927:  Between 1927 and 1937, a total of 65,895 approved privies were constructed, many by Works Progress Administration workers.

1934:  Between 1934 and 1935, Department of Health state laboratories examined 2,506 animal heads for rabies.

1936:  Dental hygiene unit organized in late 1936 to create a general awareness for preventive and corrective dental care in younger age groups and to provide emergency and important dental services to school-aged and preschool children whose families are unable to pay for these services.

1941:  Largest outbreak of polio ever in Tennessee: 522 cases.

1943:  Last confirmed case of smallpox in Tennessee.

1950:  There were 1,874 cases of whooping cough in Tennessee.  

1957:  An influenza outbreak occurs in the fall and winter, with 180,164 cases reported and a death rate of 8.7 per 1,000 population. It is the largest flu outbreak in Tennessee since 1918.

1960:  A total of 357 residents die from tuberculosis in Tennessee.

1966:  First year since records were kept that Tennessee had no reported cases of diphtheria or poliomyelitis.

1970:  The Tennessee General Assembly passes a bill requiring licensing of nursing home administrators.

1977:  The Tennessee General Assembly passes the Tennessee Child Passenger Protection Act of 1977, making Tennessee the first state in the nation to enact a law designed to protect automobile passengers from death and serious injury. It went into effect Jan. 1, 1978, and required parents to package or restrain children under age four in federally-approved child restraint systems while riding in family-owned vehicles on Tennessee streets and highways.

1982:  AIDS reporting in Tennessee begins. HIV reporting begins in 1992.

1985:  There are 49 tuberculosis deaths in Tennessee, compared to 1,072 in the 1936-1937 fiscal year.

2002:  First case of West Nile Virus in humans in Tennessee, spurring additional aggressive efforts to control insect populations. 
Find more information about the history of the Tennessee Department of Health online at

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