April 12, 2023

Water Woes, Burning Garbage & Hope for a New Hospital – Cambridge Board of Health Speaks Out in 1904

On occasion, the Cambridge Public Health Department will be traveling back in time to find out what public health issues were vexing Cambridge city officials in the early 20th century.

The Mayor of Cambridge in 1904 had a lot on his mind, and much of it had to do public health. Cambridge was a modernizing and fast-growing city, and its infrastructure was struggling to keep up. 

Mayor Daly was annoyed that the city had to pay $500,000 (in today’s money) to bring in water from outside communities after the City Council rejected a plan to widen the pipe from Fresh Pond so that enough water could be delivered to meet demand. He also frowned upon the city’s practice of burning garbage in public dumps, which was eliciting “loud and bitter complaints” from nearby residents. 

The Cambridge Board of Health had its hands full with similar problems, namely “offensive and defective” toilets; filthy yards and cellars; stagnant water; dead animals on premises, and abandoned homes, all of which resulted in 14,000 health inspections that year. The board also passed regulations to prevent the spread of tuberculosis, safeguard the city’s milk supply, and change how meat and poultry could be sold in markets.

But the most urgent public health matter, in the opinion of the mayor and the Board of Health, was the need for an additional hospital for the treatment of diphtheria, scarlet fever, and measles. The lack of hospital beds to isolate infected residents was “a condition of affairs not creditable nor humane in a city of 100,000 inhabitants” wrote the Board of Health.

The practice of medicine changed dramatically during the years it took to secure funding and land for the hospital. City leaders abandoned the idea of a “contagious diseases” hospital and instead built a modern hospital with a maternity ward, operating rooms, X-ray machine, and an “accident room” where doctors treated everything from frostbite to bullet wounds. Cambridge City Hospital opened on June 1, 1917 on the same site now occupied by CHA Cambridge Hospital

Sources: The Mayor’s Address at the Organization of the City Government, January 2, 1905, and the Annual Reports made to the Council for the years 1904-1917.