Primary APHA Sources – Personalities – Stephen Smith
A Short Narrative of Dr. Stephen Smith – APHA Founder
Dr. Stephen Smith, founder of the American Public Health Association, attended the Semicentennial Banquet of the Association held in his honor at the Hotel Astor in November 1921. He was 98 years old. Dr Smith spoke with vigor, reviewed the momentous challenges to Public Health, noted progress and expressed optimism that the momentum of public health would add to the health of peoples in the years to come. But that none of this was or would be assured..
Dr Smith was a remarkable man. His celebrated longevity marked him as the paragon of a healthy life; many sought his guidance as to his lessons of longevity. And justifiably too, considering that life expectancy at birth was then 41 years, he had already lived over two normal lifetimes for those days. He credited his longevity to a lifetime of hard work, beginning as a child on the family farm.
Born February 19th 1823 in New York State, the son of a Cavalry Officer in the American Revolutionary War, Smith began his life in the year President James Monroe declared the Monroe Doctrine and the first Steam Ship began to navigate the Mississippi. He lived through the US Civil War and the Closing of the American Frontier. He founded the APHA before the patenting of the telephone and radio.
Smith trained as a physician at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, and did his residency at Bellevue Hospital. Beyond treating his patients, he recognized that outbreaks of typhus and cholera were related to dreadful environmental conditions in the City of New York. He knew that the City was under the political sway of the notorious Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall cronyism that turned a purposeful blind eye toward public hygiene.
During his formative professional years, three characteristics of Dr. Smith were evident: he mobilized and enlightened citizens, researched and backed his sanitary campaigns with evidence, and declared that the public’s health required a well organized public health system staffed with well-trained professionals.
Smith and other dedicated reformers produced the landmark, “Report on the Sanitary Condition of the City,” published in 1865. His dogged pursuit of advocacy with fellow physicians led to the creation of the Metropolitan Health Board for New York City in 1866.
Smith was appointed a Commissioner of the Board and served until 1875. With other visionaries, he saw the need for a national network to engage scientists, enlighten the public, and ignite civic support for public health. Thus was born the American Public Health Association in 1872.
He publishing a retrospective review in 1911 that is tellingly entitled “The City that Was.”
Smith was not always correct in his portends of the future for he reasoned that the human life span should be 100 years, and that this could be achieved through advances in public health and medicine by the 100th Anniversary of APHA, in 1972. He also predicted that enlightened humankind would eliminate war. So his work is incomplete but his words and vision resonate, then and now.