On March 3, 1879, a National Board of Health (NBH) was created by an Act of the 45th U.S. Congress titled “An Act to Prevent the Introduction of Infectious or Contagious Disease into the United States and to establish a National Board of Health.” The NBH as designated comprised 11 members: seven appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate; three medical officers detailed from the Army, Navy, and Marine Hospital Service (MHS, later known as the Public Health Service); and one representative from the office of the U.S. Attorney General. The NBH was charged with (1) obtaining information on all matters affecting public health; (2) advising governmental departments, the Commissioners of the District of Columbia (DC), and the executives of several states on all questions submitted by them—or whenever in the opinion of the NBH such advice may tend to the preservation and improvement of public health; and (3) with the assistance of the Academy of Science, reporting to Congress on a plan for a national public health organization, with special attention given to quarantine and especially regulations to be established among the states, as well as a national quarantine system. The NBH discontinued operations in 1883, four years after its inception.
When Congress convened in 1879, both the Army and the Marine Hospital Service (MHS), headed by Dr. Woodworth, sponsored bills relating to a national health authority. As noted previously, the legislation recommended by the American Public Health Association (APHA) created the NBH, and the MHS was slated to lose its health duties related to quarantine, including maritime quarantine.
Eleven days after the passage of that Act and the creation of the NBH, Dr. Woodworth died at the age of 41. No cause of death had been specified. He had shaped the MHS from an ill-defined patchwork of facilities with doubtful management into a disciplined service with overall direction that in later years would become a model for the National Health Service. Dr. Woodworth’s successor as head of the MHS was Dr. Hamilton, who would prove to be no friend of the NBH or its vice president, Dr. Billings.
On April 2, 1879, one month after the passage of the enabling Act, Dr. Billings, who was acting vice president of the NBH, held the first meeting of the smaller Executive Committee of the Board at Ford’s Theatre, the site of President Lincoln’s assassination and now Dr. Billings’Army headquarters office. The Executive Committee of the Board was the governance instrument through which Dr. Billings would function to manage the NBH operational affairs. In the early days of its operations, the Executive Committee of the Board would meet almost daily. Dr. Cabell served as board president and, thus, he and Dr. Billings—both physicians—held the very same posts in the NBH that they had held in the APHA.
- Reports of the actions of the 45th Congress, Sess. 3, Ch. 202, March 3, 1879. An Act to Prevent the Introduction of Infectious or Contagious Diseases into the United States and to Establish a National Board of Health.
- Annual report of the National Board of Health, 1883. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office; 1884.