Frederick J. Bancroft, M.D. (1834-1903)

Part Three — 1876-1878

The Territorial Board of Health — February - July 1876

In February 1876, the Colorado territorial legislature created a nine-member Territorial Board of Health, and Governor John L. Routt signed the legislation into law.

Frederick J. Bancroft, MD, was board president and Harrison A. Lemen, MD, was secretary. The other members were physicians from around the Colorado Territory — A.V. Small of Trinidad; Thomas G. Horn of Colorado Springs; William Edmondson of Central City; Timothy M. Smith of Fort Collins; Russell J. Collins of Georgetown; Thomas N. Metcalf of Del Norte; and William H. Williams of Denver.

The law gave the new Board of Health a $500.00 annual budget and a mandate to investigate public health matters and make recommendations, but didn't give it authority to enforce regulations. That wouldn't have made much difference, because about six months later when Colorado became a state, the Territorial Board of Health was no more.

In its January-July 1876 issue, The Medical and Surgical Reporter said on page 415 that in his annual report published in March, Frederick J. Bancroft, MD, the city physician, said that Denver's annual death rate was an "almost incredibly low" 9.35 per thousand.

The article quotes Dr. Bancroft as saying that "Of the 92 deaths from pulmonary consumption, in 85 the disease was contracted outside of our Territory, and in 7 it was contracted in Denver. This disease has steadily increased in this city since 1870, but prior to that time I had never seen a case which had been incurred in Colorado, nor could I learn of any in the practice of other physicians. The increase of this disease must be due either to ill ventilation, accumulated filth, or to an atmospheric change caused by the presence of so many who have visited Colorado for the relief of this malady.

"I am inclined to the opinion that the first two causes are chief in the production of this disease. It is a well-known fact that the outer posts of civilization have always been free from consumption, and, therefore, the resorts of this class of invalids. It is within the memory of the present generation that the climate of southern Illinois was much resorted to for the relief of pulmonary troubles.

"Then in turn came into favor Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the plains of Kansas and Nebraska; now these States and places furnish a fair share of the consumptives who come to this Territory. Whether, in these places, there has been any other atmospheric changes than that caused by the miasma created by continued habitation, or whether the changes made in the style and manner of living counteract the recuperative qualities of the air, I am not fully prepared to state; but, whatever the cause of their deterioration as sanitariums, it is very certain that Denver will lose her now pre-eminent repute for healthfulness unless more attention is paid to cleanliness throughout the city."

The State Board of Health — 1877

On March 22, 1877, Colorado's first General Assembly established a weak Colorado State Board of Health that was to collect and study vital statistics and advise on matters including water supply and sewage disposal.

Frederick J. Bancroft, MD, the first president of the State Board of Health, said the board would also try "to ascertain in what localities and at what altitude the growing child may gain the best physical and mental development. If high altitude increased the breathing capacity and strength of the heart, and the plains produce tall, athletic men, it is not improbable that places may be found in Colorado where growing children may attain the best possible health and longevity."

Board members gradually resigned in frustration because of their severely restricted role, and by 1885, only two board members remained. When their terms expired on June 1, 1886, the Colorado State Board of Health no longer existed.

"The Sanitary Condition of Denver"

On March 12, 1878, five leaders of the Denver Medical Association — Dr. Charles Denison, Dr. William Whitehead, Dr. Harrison Lemen, Dr. Henry Steele, and Dr. William McClelland — met in Dr. Denison's office to listen to Dr. Frederick Bancroft discuss "the sanitary condition of Denver." Dr. Bancroft began by saying that "notwithstanding its youth, Denver is one of the dirty cities of the country. Filth has been accumulating for nearly twenty years, with but little disturbance." All were concerned about the filth creating an epidemic, but thought that if city officials acted, an epidemic could be avoided.

Dr. Bancroft: "Whoever will take an early morning drive through the town will not fail to see a dozen or more dead rats, and perhaps several defunct cats. These and other refuse are soon ground by passing vehicles into impalpable dust, which . . . finds its way into our houses, and settles on floors, bedding and furniture."

He mentioned that people were once again keeping pigs within the city limits, and that slaughterhouses, meat markets, and soap factories routinely dumped their waste into the Platte River. His recommendation was that Denver institute waste removal procedures designed to protect public health, and he went into considerable detail about how that could work. Dr. Bancroft added that "Cleanliness of premises is not a luxury that a poor man cannot afford, whereas it should be made unoppressively cheap, and then rigidly enforced by law."

Dr. Whitehead suggested that the only way to get the city council to act was to create popular demand for a clean city. Dr. Steele emphasized the need to educate people who really didn't understand that filth was bad for their health. The danger of unsanitary wells in the city was repeatedly mentioned in the discussion following Dr. Bancroft's talk.

The group established a committee — Dr. John McDonald, Dr. William McClelland, Dr. Frederick Bancroft, Dr. Arnold Stedman, and Dr. Harrison Lemen — to prepare recommendations for the city council and report on them to the Denver Medical Association in two weeks.

Later in March 1878, the committee reported to the Association that "the unsanitary condition of the city reported at the last meeting was not exaggerated, but rather underestimated." They cited the appalling conditions in downtown Denver, particularly near the hotels: "There are places on Sixteenth Street . . . where only the planks of the sidewalk divide the pedestrian from some twelve feet of privy contents." They recommended six specific ordinances that would address the problems, and the Association decided that the best approach would be to let the public know what they found and what they recommended. That didn't work.

On May 22, 1878, Cherry Creek flooded, depositing "decomposing organic matter [and creating] in many places a subsoil of 6 or 8 ft. of logs, and a large mass of animal remains" (Denver Medical Association minutes for January 20, 1879, quoted by Katherine Hall.). This filth resulted in an epidemic in 1879.

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