Thursday, January 2, 2014

Take two pills: Statistics and records from the State Board of Health

The State Library collects annual reports from agencies across the Commonwealth.  These reports contain a wealth of information especially from the 19th and early 20th centuries. For instance, the Massachusetts State Board of Health annual report titled Monthly Bulletin contains information on death rates from diseases such as typhoid fever, diphtheria, whooping cough and scarlet fever as well as prosecutions for violations of the laws relating to food and drugs.  In July 1908 these prosecutions led to the convictions of 48 people for selling cider containing benzoic acid, and selling cider containing salicyclic acid (a drug in the same family as aspirin-salicylates) and for making preparations containing cocaine.  On March 31st, 1908 there was an extensive outbreak of milk-borne typhoid fever in Jamaica Plain.


The report also includes health laws that were amended in 1908 including admittance of hospital records as evidence in the courts, the use of water to humidify factories, and the emission of smoke called the smoke law.  The smoke law is not about smoking cigarettes but “an act relative to the emission of smoke in cities and towns” excluding locomotive engines and pottery kilns.”

The report also contains interesting charts, including a list of headache powders collected by the inspectors of food and drugs.  There are statistics on poisonings from the ingredients of some headache preparations.   Some of the headache cures mentioned include “Laxacold, a laxative treatment tablet treatment for coughs, colds, grippe, headache and neuralgia”; “Magic Headache Wafers, a sure cure for nearly every form of headache” which is “especially valuable in sick, nervous and periodic headache, brain fag and mental weariness.”  These health reports give us insight as to which public health issues were important to this agency in the early 20th century.

Naomi Allen
Reference Librarian