Yakima Health District History

With extensive irrigation projects, fertile soil, and phenomenal opportunity for farming, Yakima County grew from 13,462 at the 1900 U.S. census to 41,709 at the 1910 census. Few of the towns had sewer systems or public water systems. Coupling this lack of sanitation with the exploding population, the County experienced typhoid fever deaths at a rate 5 times higher than the national average. In 1911, city and county leaders sought federal assistance in helping identify why the death rate from typhoid fever was so high.

After an investigation by epidemiologist Dr. Leslie Lumsden, it was determined that the death rate was totally preventable by reasonable and inexpensive sanitary measures. Dr. Lumsden found that privies (outhouses) were placed next to wells and were contaminating the ground water. Irrigation ditches were open and exposed to pollution from privies, so that the water used for watering crops was contaminated with sewage. Animal excreta were improperly disposed of, creating a huge fly population throughout the Valley. The sewage of the city of North Yakima was discharged directly into the Yakima River. Downstream this water was used for irrigation and as a source of drinking water.
Dr. Lumsden recommended:

  • The formation of an efficient county health organization.
  • Rigid enforcement of the law requiring prompt reporting of all cases of typhoid fever.
  • Adequate official supervision over all recognized and suspected cases of typhoid fever to secure disinfection of patients and other measure to prevent the spread of infection.
  • The safeguarding of water supplies against dangerous pollution.
  • The disposal of human excreta in a sanitary manner so that the soil will not be polluted and flies will not be contaminated with this dangerous material.
  • Carrying out an energetic campaign against flies to lessen their numbers and to prevent them from having access to infectious matter and to foods and beverages.
  • Community education in respect to sanitation.

His recommendations produced a dramatic decline in the incidence of Typhoid Fever. This success prompted the Yakima County commissioners and the city council to establish a permanent local health department staffed by a physician, a sanitarian, a nurse, and a clerk. This success led the Public Health Service to publish a monograph entitled “The Causation and Prevention of Typhoid Fever – with Special Reference to Conditions Observed in Yakima County Washington.” The monograph received wide distribution and became something of a bible for rural sanitation work as well as a blueprint for the development of county health departments. Although public health agencies existed in several counties prior to 1911, the Yakima achievements led to the development of county health departments in most parts of the country (taken in part from Plagues and Politics: The Story of the United States Public Health Service).