Calvert County Health Department

Local (410) 535-5400, DC Metro (301) 855-1353, Annapolis (410) 269-2216

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About Our Agency: History

The history of organized public health in Maryland began well before the Calvert County Board of Health appointed its first Health Officer in 1900.  Baltimore City Health Department, established in 1797, is the oldest continuously operating health department in the United States.  It was established in response to repeated epidemics of yellow fever, an often fatal communicable disease imported from overseas into the Fells Point area of Baltimore City, which at that time served as a docking location for seagoing vessels.

Control of epidemic communicable diseases, mainly through enforcement of quarantine laws, was, in fact, the primary reason for the early establishment of American public health departments in seaports along the Atlantic seaboard and Gulf of Mexico.  Although difficult to imagine now, thousands of Americans succumbed to smallpox, yellow fever and cholera during the 18th and 19th centuries.   Strong governmental action to protect the public’s health was clearly justified, even though it meant a restriction on the freedom of citizens to move about as they pleased. 

In 1799, incorporated by a special act of the State Legislature, Maryland physicians formed the Maryland State Medical Society, known then as the Medical & Chirurgical Faculty of the State of Maryland, an organization that over the years has done much to foster the development of public health services as well as assuring high standards of health care in general.  Most important for public health, it encouraged the creation of Maryland’s first State Board of Health, established in 1874, and consisting of five physicians appointed by the governor. 

Initially an advisory body only, the first State Board of Health was reorganized in 1880 as a seven member board and given regulatory power to establish county boards of health and to respond to health emergencies.  The new State Board of Health consisted of four physicians, the state’s attorney general, a civil engineer and the Baltimore City Health Commissioner.  One of the board’s physicians served as the board’s secretary, executive officer, and superintendent of vital statistics.  In 1886, the Maryland State Legislature designated each board of county commissioners to be, ex officio, a county board of health.  The new county health boards were authorized to appoint a county health officer, who was to be a well educated physician and was to serve as the board’s Secretary and Executive Officer.

The Maryland State Health Department was established in 1910. It consisted of five bureaus: Vital Statistics, Communicable Diseases, Bacteriology, Chemistry, and Sanitary Engineering, with the State Board of Health acting in an advisory and policy setting role.  In 1914 the Secretary of the State Board of Health was designated as the State Health Officer; concurrently the state was divided into ten sanitary districts along county boundary lines with a Deputy State Health Officer, appointed by the State Board of Health, assigned to each sanitary district.  The Deputy State Health Officer was responsible for protecting public health as well as supporting and aiding county health officers.  In 1931, the number of sanitary districts was increased to twenty-three along county boundary lines and each county Health Officer was also appointed as Deputy State Health Officer.  In 1982 the dual designation of county and deputy state health officer was replaced by the single designation of Health Officer, one such official for each county, nominated by the county and appointed by the state.  Under the direction of the Health Officer, each county health department in Maryland provides state-mandated services as well as services initiated by the county.

Publicly funded services for mentally ill persons developed slowly in Maryland.  Although the Maryland Hospital for indigent sick persons and mentally ill persons was established in Baltimore as early as 1797, (its use becoming limited to the mentally ill by 1838), it was not until 1886 that the Lunacy Commission was established to safeguard legal rights and protect the mentally ill from abuse.  The Lunacy Commission was mandated to visit and inspect all places, public or private, where mentally ill persons were kept.  In 1922 the duties of the Lunacy Commission were transferred to a Board of Mental Hygiene, and later, in 1949, the Department of Mental Hygiene was created and charged with administering the state’s psychiatric institutions and coordinating other mental health activities throughout the state.

In 1961, the separate state boards of health and mental hygiene were combined into a single State Board of Health and Mental Hygiene, which in turn directed the activities of the Department of Health and the Department of Mental Hygiene.  Through executive reorganization in 1969, the Board and the two departments were superseded by the newly created Department of Health and Mental Hygiene under the direction of the Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene, now a member of the Governor’s cabinet.
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