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Public Health: Past and Present

The Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service has been helping prevent the spread of disease by soldiers returning from foreign ports, maintaining immigrant health, and responding to natural and man-made disasters for over 200 years. The ability of the (United) State(s) to use police power to protect the public health goes back to the (U.S.) Constitution and further. Colonies, such as the Massachusetts Bay Company, passed various health laws, such as a maritime quarantine law. English common law also allows the state to use its police power in times of imminent health crisis — there are over 120 references to “quarantine” in HeinOnline’s English Reports. The U.S. Constitution and subsequent Supreme Court jurisprudence both continued to allow for the federal and state governments to intervene with their police power in times of health crises.

Leroy Parker wrote The Law of Public Health and Safety, published by Matthew Bender in 1892. The text, which discusses public health law and health boards, and well as hygiene and sanitary practices in the United States shortly before the turn of the Eighteenth Century, is available in full-text via the Library’s Making of Modern Law: Legal Treatises, 1800-1926 database. James A. Tobey took up the mantle of public health research and promotion, writing the first of several editions of Public Health, A Manual for Sanitarians in 1926. He also wrote numerous law review articles that discussed public health and police power (1927), public health and the Supreme Court (1925), the legal aspects of milk control (1924), and public health and religious freedom (1954). During more recent decades, Lawrence O. Gostin has been one of the most prolific scholars of public health.

While the topics have changed (from quarantining sailors who might bring diseases from foreign shores to mandatory vaccinations for school children, for example), the interplay between police powers and individual liberties and privacy still plays out in the legal and scholarly literature. Sometimes, the topic is covered in the popular press, such as possible responses to avian flu pandemics. This month, CDC has expressed “distressing” concerns about the possible improper handling of anthrax samples in its labs.

Librarian Cheryl Cheatham has compiled resources related to the current state of Public Health Law Research and Legal Preparedness.