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Public Health Subject Research Guide: Home

What is public health?

According to C. E. A. Winslow, public health is “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health efficiency through organized community efforts for the sanitation of the environment, the control of communicable disease, the education of the individuals in personal hygiene, the organization of medical and nursing services for the early diagnosis and treatment of disease, and the development of the social machinery to insure everyone a standard of living adequate for the maintenance of health, so organizing these benefits as to enable every citizen to realize his birthright of health and longevity.”


The United States increased in population between 1800 and 1850, largely owing to an influx of immigrants. However, public health efforts did not increase with the growth of the population. Cases of yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, and typhus multiplied in alarming numbers, and malaria and tuberculosis threatened and claimed lives. In 1850 Lemuel Shattuck, a member of the Massachusetts state assembly, created one of the most influential documents in the history of public health, entitled “Report of the Sanitary Commission of Massachusetts.” In this document Shattuck compared public health progress in Europe with the devastating epidemics in Massachusetts and the decrease in life expectancy in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Shattuck recommended the development of state and local boards of health


Comeau, D. L., & Langworthy, T. (2018). Public health. In S. Bronner (Ed.), Encyclopedia of American studies. MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved from