The Work of US Public Health Service Officers in Puerto Rico, 1898-1919

Jose G. Rigau-Pérez


The history of the US Public Health Service (PHS) is usually presented in terms of diseases or discoveries; this article examines twenty years’ activity in one location. When the United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, the Marine Hospital Service (now PHS) took responsibility for foreign quarantine, inspection of immigrants, and medical care for merchant seamen. Its officers evaluated the sanitary conditions of port cities, helped reorganize local disease surveillance and control, and investigated endemic diseases (e.g., hookworm-related anemia) and epidemics (e.g., bubonic plague). After World War I and pandemic influenza, and the greater self-government allowed Puerto Rico by Congress in 1917, PHS officers withdrew from routine local sanitary actions. A narrow geographic focus (Puerto Rico), to examine PHS activity over time (1898 to 1919) provides a richer picture of the agency’s impact, and reveals how the sum of disease control activities affected the development of an area’s health status and institutions. The duties and, importantly, the personal initiatives of PHS officers in Puerto Rico, such as WW King, produced lasting impact on scientific institutions and administrative, professional, and health care practices.


history of medicine; Puerto Rico; US Public Health Service; tropical medicine; Arthur H. Glennan; Walter W. King; Samuel B. Grubbs; Bailey K. Ashford

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Published by the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus
Founded in 1982