As public health officials guide us through the COVID-19 crisis, it is significant to note that Minnesota and Red Wing played leading roles in developing the public health system.

When the Minnesota State Board of Health was established on March 4, 1872, the state was only 14 years old, but only Massachusetts, California, the District of Columbia and Virginia were ahead of Minnesota in creating a state board of health, according to documents from the Goodhue County Historical Society.

Dr. Charles N. Hewitt of Red Wing was named executive secretary of the board, and his influence was immediate.

Dr. Charles Hewitt arrived in Red Wing in 1867 and in 1872 was named the first executive secretary of the Minnesota State Board of Health. Photo courtesy of Goodhue County Historical Society
Dr. Charles Hewitt arrived in Red Wing in 1867 and in 1872 was named the first executive secretary of the Minnesota State Board of Health. Photo courtesy of Goodhue County Historical Society

“A vigorous, assertive personality with a propensity for study, analysis, conviction and action had arrived in Minnesota to pioneer new concepts of public health and sanitation,” stated an article in the Nov. 4, 1953, edition of the Republican Eagle. “Due to his efforts, Minnesota took its place as a leader among the states in matters that concerned the health of its citizens.”

Hewitt arrived in Red Wing in 1867 at the invitation of Dr. Augustine B. Hawley and the Rev. Edward Randolph Walles, friends of Hewitt at Hobart College. Hewitt wrote to Hawley that he had not yet “perpetrated matrimony” but that he didn’t intend to stay single much longer.

Not long after arriving in Red Wing, Hewitt met Helen Hawley, cousin of Dr. Hawley, fell in love, and married her in 1869. She became not only his wife, but a valuable part of his medical research as she often indexed the volumes of data he collected in his medical studies and helped organize vials of vaccines and other supplies in the office Hewitt maintained in the Keystone Building on Main Street.

As a young state, Minnesota was rapidly growing and a steady stream of immigrants flowed into the state and into Red Wing. Hewitt noted that this created an environment filled with cholera, typhoid and dysentery. He also found children suffered from whooping cough, measles, and diphtheria, and he blamed it on unsanitary conditions and practices he observed throughout the community.

In 1868, a boat filled with Finnish immigrants traveled up the Mississippi River. Cholera broke out on their boat, and they attempted to land in Red Wing. Fearing an outbreak in the town, officials denied them access. Hewitt heard about their situation and went to their help.

“Dr. Hewitt hired a boat owner to take him out to the suffering immigrants and immediately took the problem in hand,” according to a Feb. 15, 1980, article in the Republican Eagle. “He came on board and tended the sick while instructing the pilot to land on an island. Here the disease could be isolated while those already sick could be treated.”

Hewitt set up a camp and brought supplies from Red Wing. Many died, but others recovered and continued upriver to settle in northern Minnesota.

Throughout all of his work, Hewitt kept accurate notes and his research gave him enough information that by 1871, he was able to publish a 19-page pamphlet on epidemics in Minnesota, and his research was significant in convincing others of the need for a state board of health which was created the following year.

Hewitt continually pushed for sanitary conditions to prevent the spread of disease, and in 1882, when a smallpox epidemic broke out in northern logging camps, he was the obvious choice to design a plan to organize doctors and set up hospitals in the logging camps to combat the disease. He faced opposition from those who owned the logging camps, but he continued and saved many lives in the process.

County health agencies

By the 1900s, the State Board of Health encouraged communities to create local boards of health to accomplish three goals: to assess the health of their community, to develop policies to limit the spread of communicable diseases, and to assure sanitary conditions conducive to a healthy community, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

These local boards continued to expand until the 1930s when state field offices were designed to support the local boards. These boards increased their areas of responsibility to include maternity services, immunizations, restaurant inspections, and health education. By the 1970s, over 2,100 local boards of health served Minnesota’s communities, so in 1976, the Legislature passed the Community Health Services Act -- now known as the Local Public Health Act -- that allowed local boards to join together as Community Health Boards to help organize the boards and improve communication and collaboration throughout the public health system.

Much of public health is still delivered by local boards who understand local conditions, needs, and resources, although the Minnesota Department of Health, founded in 1998, provides information that local boards need and is responsible for statewide public health policy development and funding.

From a small building in Red Wing to an organization with 1500 employees and a 500 million dollar budget, the public health system in Minnesota has helped the state survive a series of epidemics and crises over its 148-year history, and is continuing to do so today with the fight against the coronavirus.