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Our History

Guilford County Department of Public Health is NC’s first full time health department and our nation’s second.  According to former Guilford College History Professor Alexander R. Stoesen’s historical compilation, typhoid fever, smallpox, infant mortality, and vaccinations for school children were major local issues that desperately needed to be addressed.  

On May 1, 1911, a delegation of residents went before the Guilford commissioners asking that “a competent physician” be hired as a health officer, “to give his entire time to looking after the health of the County.”  Fortunately, the commissioners decided this was a worthy request!  They voted in agreement and then appropriated $2,500 for the physician’s salary and expenses.  On July 1, 1911, Dr. G. F. Ross began his work.  

Preventing disease and promoting health is what the Guilford County Department of Public Health continues to do 100 years after Dr. Ross began his work.   Throughout 2011, the Department celebrated its Centennial with a look back at the past. 

“In public health, we see the community as our patient” states Merle Green, Guilford’s current Health Director.  “We all want to live in a place where we can grow and prosper.”
In 1912, Dr. William M. Jones took over as health superintendent (the position now recognized as health director). During his 11-year tenure, malaria made it on the list of health concerns for our community along with the need for health education and improved children’s health.  While Dr. Jones was out distributing educational materials to local businesses, he saw a food service worker blow his nose in a dish rag – an absolute NO-NO!  After that observation, the department added a part-time health inspector.  Also during this time, the American Red Cross provided a nurse.  The staff was now up to three. 

Over the next few years, diseases came and went, which kept the department on its toes.  Jones pushed for and established sanitation standards for local schools, a major accomplishment.  But then, a serious blow to the community occurred:  the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic that killed 156 residents.

During this time, both Greensboro and High Point also operated their own city health departments. In the 1920’s, a push to consolidate the three health agencies was made but was unsuccessful.  It would be another 20 years before the three would become one.  Before consolidation would occur, Guilford County would suffer the ill effects of the Great Depression and the loss of health personnel.  Ultimately, the agency bounced back with the aid of federal funds and hired its first dentist.

During World War II, Greensboro housed the largest military base inside any city limits; unfortunately, this led to our county having one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted disease in the country. 

Next came polio.  Again, Guilford County was on top, but for all the wrong reasons.  We had the worst polio epidemic in the US (205 cases and 5 deaths). 

After the consolidation of the three health departments in 1949, an all-out war was issued against polio as pilot tests of the Salk vaccination took place here.  In addition, under the new leadership of Dr. Everett Hewes Ellinwood, our county’s first mental health clinic was established as Dr. Ellinwood recognized the connection between physical and emotional health.  This mental health clinic became a separate department in 1968.  During Ellinwood’s 20-year tenure, the Guilford County Department of Public Health became known as the model for public health as many “firsts” were achieved:  the first air pollution regulations, service provision in low income areas, and sanitation inspection rules. 

When Dr. Sarah Morrow took the reins in 1969, children’s programming again took center stage.  More efforts were made to reach low income families, family planning services expanded and Guilford added the first family planning nurse practitioner in North Carolina.  

In the 70’s, services moved into the community with the addition of neighborhood clinics.  Steps to reduce damage from oil and chemical spills were made by developing and implementing needed procedures.  And then another first:  Guilford was NC’s first county to require soil evaluations before septic tanks permits were issued. 

For the next 30 plus years, Guilford’s county health department continued to add programs and services to meet the community’s needs and assure compliance with state public health laws. HIV/AIDS was a new disease that challenged the system while old issues like infant mortality continued, becoming an even a greater problem.  Services have been reorganized and sometimes outsourced in order to best serve the community.  An example of this was the privatization of the children’s acute care clinic which became Guilford Child Health, today known as Triad Adult and Pediatric Medicine, Inc.  Access to health care for the working poor continues to be a significant need today, but in 2010, the establishment of the Evans-Blount Community Health Center in southeast Greensboro was an example of a Guilford County public-private partnership making quality services more accessible and affordable. 

“We are proud of our history in this community,” states Green.  “Our past has prepared us to continue to be leaders in the future.”

Compiled, April 2011