Colorado's Healthcare Heritage

Updates to Volume One — 1891

Mayor Platt Rogers and Dr. Henry K. Steele

1891: Platt Rogers, an attorney who was a native of New Jersey, was mayor of Denver (1891-1893).

The spring of 1891 marked one of those periods when the people of Denver were moved to active resentment by municipal mismanagement. They elected as mayor Platt Rogers, incorruptible and unafraid. Mr. Rogers recognized as important above all the reorganization of the health department.

The death rate in Denver was, in 1890, 23.7 per thousand, one of the worst records to be found in the country. The water service was suspicious and under control of a monopoly that sadly needed sanitary espionage. No effective supervision was exercised over the milk and food supply of the city. The management of contagious diseases was carried on by a method which often rid the community of danger by killing the patient only after he had been allowed to spread his infirmity within a wide radius; moreover, the method was very expensive to the city treasury.

The sanitary authorities had not found the support necessary to prevent the accumulation of filth; the plumbing and drainage of houses was, for the most part, of a primitive kind; a large proportion of the population got drinking water from shallow wells. In order to right these evils it was necessary to secure the directive energy of a man of intelligence, knowledge, wisdom and courage. One who would have the address to secure appropriations from a jealous and self-seeking city council and one who should stand so high in the confidence and respect of the community as to make the citizens complaisant to the acts of a dictator, for only this word expressed the wielding of sanitary authority necessary at that time.

Mayor Rogers selected for the position Dr. Henry K. Steele. . . . It cannot have been altogether the result of chance that the death rate of Denver during the first year of the new health service fell from 23.7 to 18.6 per thousand per annum and one year later to 14.27. (Henry Sewall, PhD, MD, "Memoir of Dr. Henry King Steele," Denver Medical Times, June 1903, pp. 598-601)

Henry King Steele, MD

Note that the following entry belongs under 1891, instead of under 1890, where it is found on pg. 348 of the published book.

1891: Dr. Henry King Steele was Denver's health commissioner from 1891 until his death in 1893. Dr. Steele's staff included two assistant health commissioners, both of whom had recently moved to Denver due to concerns about their health-Henry Sewall, PhD, MD, and William Phipps Munn, MD. Dr. Steele felt that it was his duty to serve without pay, so he gave Drs. Sewall and Munn each half of his salary. See part of Dr. Sewall's memoir of Dr. Steele (above, under Platt Rogers).

In the May 1903 Denver Medical Times, Herbert W. McLauthlin, MD, wrote:
It is only semi-occasionally that the guileful intricacies of politics allow personal fitness, and not political debts, to dictate appointments, especially that of health. The administration of Hon. Platt Rogers, Mayor of the city from 1891 to 1893, proved a marked exception in Denver politics and made possible the founding of a cosmopolitan health department. That the possibility resulted in achievement was due to the efforts of Dr. Steele, Dr. Munn, and Dr. Sewall.

Mary Elizabeth Bates, MD

Dr. Mary Elizabeth Bates — who had received her MD in 1881 from the Woman's Medical College of Chicago — moved to Denver in 1891 and became a general practitioner and surgeon.

Dr. Bates had been the first female intern at Chicago's Cook County Hospital, where she was demonstrator of anatomy in 1882-1883. After studying in Vienna in 1883-1884, she was professor of anatomy and lecturer on minor surgery at the Woman's Medical College of Chicago from 1884 until 1889. She was also on the staff at the dispensary at the Chicago Hospital for Women and Children.

In addition to her medical practice in Denver, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Bates was prominently associated with the Colorado Equal Suffrage Association, which may have been the single most important factor in getting the vote for women in 1893. Dr. Bates was also a strong defender of the rights of animals and was responsible for the passage of significant Colorado animal protection legislation. A few years before her death in 1954, she established the Mary Elizabeth Bates Foundation for animal care.

Note that Dr. Mary Helen Barker Bates (1845-1934) and Dr. Mary Elizabeth Bates (1861-1954) both practiced in Denver and both were leaders in the woman's suffrage movement and involved with other social issues.

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