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Origins of the National Institutes of Health
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A Federal Role Begins

Department of the Treasury Flag. The flag is white with a dark grey fringe around the outside of the flag. In the center of the flag are the eight dark stars in a circle around grey circle. In the interior edge of the circle in red lettering are the words Thesaur. Amer. Septent. Sigil. In the center of the circle is a shield. On the top portion of the shield is dark with a a scale in white, an angled dotted field with dark five dark stars separates it from a key in a white field on the bottom.
Department of the Treasury Flag of 1887.

In 1730 Pennsylvania began collection of money to support medical treatment of sailors in hospitals. But protection of the public health as a function for a central government was never considered during the Colonial period. Public health is not mentioned in the Constitution, for example. Despite local control efforts, there were numerous serious disease outbreaks. On November 22, 1797, President John Adams began his annual message to Congress with "I was for some time apprehensive that it would be necessary on account of the contagious sickness which affected the city of Philadelphia, to convene the National Legislature at some other place." It was during this yellow fever epidemic, on July 16, 1798, that President John Adams signed the first Federal public health law, "An act for the relief of sick and disabled Seamen." This law called on Collectors of Customs to assess for every arriving seaman 20 cents a month for the care of sick seamen and the building of hospitals. This money was deposited with the Secretary of the Treasury. That is how the Marine Hospital Service was created and found itself a part of the Department of the Treasury.

Colored drawing of an aerial view Philadelphia about the time the Marine Hospital was created. 'Philadelphia in the Olden Time' from the Harry T. Peters 'America on Stone.'
Philadelphia about the time the Marine Hospital was created.

In contrast to the minor Federal role, there was keen general public interest in medical matters. The first medical journal appeared in the United States in July 1797. The Medical Repository was the forerunner of 249 private medical journals printed in principal American cities between 1800 and 1850, informing the public on progress in the health field and giving physicians a chance to tell of their own and of European researches and observations. President Jefferson personally campaigned for smallpox vaccination, and by 1802 it was firmly established in this country. In this year legislation was passed to provide $15,000 for the erection of a Marine Hospital at Boston and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin reported in February 1802 that he was operating hospitals in Boston; Newport; Norfolk; and Charleston, S.C. He was contracting for medical services in Baltimore; New York; Philadelphia; Portland, Maine; New London, Connecticut; Wilmington; New Bern and Edenton, North Carolina; Alexandria, Virginia; and Savannah. To December 30, 1801, $147,875 had been received of which $43,761 remained unexpended.