Find of the Month

July 2020 - The City Physician

Health Officer annual report

Seattle once had a provision in the city charter that declared the city's health officer "shall act as city physician." This position's duties were not further defined. In the Health Department's annual report for 1899, health officer Dr. M.E.A. McKechnie laid out how this lack of clarity was becoming a problem:

Just what the duties of city physician are can only be guessed at. The public has jumped at the conclusion that the city physician's duties require him to respond to all calls at all hours, and attend, free, all those who may feel themselves unable to employ a physician of their own.

Providing free medical care to the city's residents was taking up more and more of McKechnie's time. He said that in the previous year he had "prescribed for 700 patients in the office, made 621 outside visits, and vaccinated 435 children in my capacity as city physician." Continuing in this vein was "manifestly impossible."

The main duties of the health officer were meant to involve investigating cases of infectious diseases and treating prisoners in the city jail. He noted that "many prisoners are brought in injured, demanding the immediate services of a physician" – but that at such times he was often unavailable due to his work with the city's general population. McKechnie proposed:

As a remedy I would respectfully suggest the passage of an ordinance defining the duties of "city physician," and limiting them to work at police headquarters and the city jail. If it is considered desirable to have the city physician do a general practice among those who may consider themselves too poor to employ a physician of their own it will be necessary to provide an extra physician for the work.