Monday, December 28, 2009

Samuel Holmes Durgin

Years Served: 1867 to 1872
Born in Parsonfield, Maine on July 26, 1839, Samuel Holmes Durgin would become one of the greatest public health physicians in 19th century Boston. Durgin attended Dartmouth in 1861 and the following year, the Harvard Medical School. After his graduation in 1864 he was commissionmed asssistant surgeon to the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. During his military service he was at the Appomattox Court House at the time of Lee's surrender. After the war he returned to Boston and became the port physician serving in that capacity from 1867 to 1872. Although described as a small, dainty, precise and pedantic man, was a brilliant administrator that brought Boston's quarantine system into the modern age. During his days as port physician, he also served as the resident physician at the Deer Island institution where he had direct responsibility for overseeing the Deer Island hospital and the smallpox hospital on nearby Gallop's Island. He kept meticulous records of hospital cases of communicable disease that have been preserved in the archives of the city of Boston. His efforts to segregate cases of communicable disease from other hospital cases on Deer Island was a major step forward in the prevention of smallpox in Boston.

His dedicated service as port physician probably helped him be selected to the three member Boston Board of Health, an institution to which he was appointed from 1873 to 1911. He served as the chairman of the Board of Health from 1876 to his retirement in 1912, a level of public service unrivalled in the history of the city's public health program. Indeed, the editors of the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) said that "such a length of service as health officer is probably unique in the United States at least, where the demands of politics, rather than qualifications of officials, has been too often the cause of change of officials." Doctor Durgin, according to the AJPH editors, did not hold his position because of his ability as a political trimmer but quite the reverse. Working in a world in which political subservience was expected, he thought only of the public interest and his integrity, high sense of moral purpose and innate leadership abilities won the support of many who secretly desired to use his office for political purposes. He was not merely the leading voice of public health policy in Boston, he was a giant in the field of communicable disease and quarantine practice. Even though his public duties were extremely demanding, he found the time to serve as a lecturer at the Harvard Medical School, hold the high position of president of the American Public Health Association and Vice President of the Massachusetts Association of Boards of Health.

Despite managing the city's quarantine program for over 40 years he still found the time to stay abreast of the latest scientific developments in the fields of sanitation and quarantine practices as they affected his responsibilities as the city's chief public health official. He saw the errors of the old schools of thought that failed to understand the scientific basis of quarantine and the limitations to traditional sanitation practices. It was his constant commitment to the application of the latest scientific principles that enabled Boston to be one of the leading cities in the promulgation of scientific principles of quarantine, the use of baceteriological laboratories to validate the diagnosis of communicable disease and the use of cost effective ship disinfection strategies to thwart a variety of vector borne diseases.

The American Journal of Public Health lauded his adoption of scientific and effective methods of controlling disease in place of the less efficient and burdensome restrictions placed on commerce which he had found in vogue in his early years of public service. As early as 1894, he commenced the manufacture of diphtheria antitoxin. In this same year, at the height of a diphtheria outbreak, one of his signal achievements was the adoption of school inspections, making Boston the first American city to take a comprehensive approach to the eradication of disease in the public school system. His policies were subsequently adopted by cities throughout the United States and Canada.


The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume XIII, 1906, p. 574.
Americal Journal of Public Health, 1912, May 2(5), pp357-358.
American Journal of Public Health, 1953, June, Vol. 43 (6 pt2), pp. 15-19.
American Journal of Public Health, 1940, January 30(1), pp. 88-89.

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