Frederick J. Bancroft, M.D. (1834-1903)
Part Two — 1870-1875
As part of his private practice, Dr. Bancroft served as surgeon for the Wells, Fargo & Company Stage Lines and then for the Kansas Pacific and Denver Pacific Railroads (1870-1876) — and for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad as well beginning in 1870.
Dr. Bancroft's widely republished articles about Colorado's beneficial climate for invalids were said to have been responsible for more people moving to Colorado than any other single factor.
Denver City Physician — 1872-1876 and 1877-1878
In 1872, Dr. Frederick J. Bancroft, 38, became Denver City physician (1872-1876 and 1877-1878). He had arrived in Denver in 1866, and in collaboration with the Denver Medical Association he became notably aggressive in promoting public health in Denver during the 1870s.
In October 1872 — following what were ordinarily "the sickly months" of May, June, July, and August — Dr. Bancroft was able to report that the threat of a smallpox epidemic that had led to his being appointed city physician didn't amount to much because nearly everyone in Denver had been vaccinated, and because the dry air helped keep it from spreading.
During the 1870s smallpox wasn't as much of a problem in Denver as scarlet fever, whooping cough, and then typhoid at the end of the decade. Physicians blamed the spread of scarlet fever and whooping cough on parents who sent their sick children to school, and Dr. Bancroft thought parents like that should be fined.
Prostitution in Denver
On October 12, 1872, the Rocky Mountain News reported that Dr. Frederick Bancroft estimated that "probably every third man who reaches the age of twenty-five has acquired . . . syphilis" in one of the city's numerous brothels. He recommended that Denver require that prostitutes be licensed based on regular physical exams and testing.
But instead of establishing a licensing system, the city simply outlawed prostitution and collected fines ranging from $5 to $100 from prostitutes. Regulations that would have protected the public health were not enacted, but Dr. Bancroft was not one to give up.
Dr. Bancroft actually persuaded the Denver Medical Association to ask the city council to adopt the "St. Louis System," which involved registering prostitutes and regulating what they could and could not do, all of which was monitored by the police and by physicians.
In St. Louis the city was divided into three districts for this purpose, and each district had a physician who was appointed "to compel a weekly medical inspection" of each prostitute. The prostitutes had to pay the fees for the exam themselves, and the proprietors of the houses where they worked paid a larger fee. But in 1875 the Denver Medical Association's committee on public hygiene opposed establishing the St. Louis System.
In January 1875, the Denver Medical Society's committee on public hygiene — Doctors Richard G. Buckingham, Thomas E. Massey, and William F. McClelland — made a detailed report to the Denver city council that included a rejection of Dr. Frederick Bancroft's 1872 recommendation that the St. Louis System of licensing and requiring physicals for prostitutes be established in Denver.
The committee said that the St. Louis System involved discrimination against women and was offensive to an "Anglo-Saxon, republican" community. In 1872 the Denver Medical Society had seemed to support Dr. Bancroft's recommendation, but the committee suggested that prostitution was a matter for the police to take care of.
At the end of January 1875, Dr. Frederick Bancroft published his annual report as Denver city physician. He made additional, stronger recommendations about prostitution, calling for a licensing system that required distinctive dresses for prostitutes, and calling for legislation that would classify asking for an abortion as attempted murder.
But because of powerful opponents of reform, the city of Denver was not ready to further regulate the sex-drugs-and-gambling lifestyle that had been part of life in Denver since the gold rush days.
Livestock in the Streets and Filthy Yards and Alleys
In his March 1873 report to the Denver city council, Dr. Frederick J. Bancroft, the city physician, asked for "an ordinance restricting the driving of wild cattle through our streets to certain hours of the night, for a number of persons have been severely injured by them, while others have barely escaped with their lives from the attacks of these infuriated beasts."
In May 1874, Dr. Frederick J. Bancroft, the city physician, reported that 79 people had died of consumption (tuberculosis) in Denver during 1874, and that 75 of those cases had originated prior to the patient's moving to Colorado to seek relief.
Dr. Bancroft agreed with the board of health that hog pens in the city were a problem, but he said that that was just a small part of the larger problem. He mentioned filthy yards and alleys, "heaps of manure," stagnant pools of water, and bones and rotting flesh all over the city. He felt that all of this debris was so contaminating the air that it could cause a typhus epidemic.
The city's condition, he wrote, was a "reproach to the board of health and a disgrace to the city government." On May 15, 1874, the Rocky Mountain News reported that Denver city officials did nothing after receiving Dr. Bancroft's report.
Late in 1874, the Denver Medical Association reported that outhouses in the city were generally disgusting and dangerous to public health, and recommended that the city require that there be at least thirty feet between an outhouse and the nearest well, that it have separate public facilities for men and women, and that the whole matter of sanitation facilities at schools be addressed.
Denver city employees worked on proposals for a city sewer system in 1874 and 1875, but nothing came of them. H.C. Lowrie, the city engineer, presented a proposal for a sewer system in 1876 and 1877 that was finally accepted. But work on the sewer system didn't begin until 1880.
In his 1875 annual report, Dr. Bancroft said that didn't want saloons to stay open all night, and he didn't want them to serve minors, but he couldn't get that legislation either.
Staff Physician at St. Vincent's Hospital
At the end of 1874 or early in 1875, the Sisters of Charity moved St. Vincent's Hospital again — this time to the former Pacific House hotel at 22nd and Blake, where it remained for about a year. The Sisters paid $80 a month to rent the building, which was usually all that they had because few of their patients could pay anything.
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At one point, Dr. Frederick J. Bancroft expressed concern about how the Sisters could possibly afford to take care of so many patients who couldn't pay. They explained that as Sisters of Charity, the poor were their first concern — and Sister Theodora McDonald later remarked that Dr. Bancroft was himself particularly kind to the poor.
Dr. Bancroft (in addition to being the Denver city physician) and Dr. Augustus L. Justice were the first two physicians on the staff of what in 1876 became St. Joseph Hospital.
Copyright © 2013 Thomas J. Sherlock
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