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The rapidly expanding population in and around Wilmington during the 18th century, coupled with the city’s proximity to Philadelphia, created a need for a city-wide regulatory health agency well before the state as a whole (see RG 1536, State Board of Health). As early as 1726 legislation had been enacted by the Lt. Governor of the three counties, which prohibited sickly vessels from coming within a mile of shore until an inspection of the vessel had been performed by appointed inspectors.1 In 1797 the Governor was directed to appoint one port physician each for Wilmington, New Castle County, Kent County, Lewes and the Nanticoke River in Seaford, to guard against any contamination by these sickly vessels.2
However, yellow fever struck Philadelphia in 1793 and a formal Board of Health was organized in Wilmington to formulate preventive measures against the epidemic’s spread. Notwithstanding these efforts, Wilmington was besieged in 1798 and again in 1802 by yellow fever and in 1832 by cholera. By 1865, the Board was composed of two members from each city ward in addition to the port physician.3
In 1881, a smallpox epidemic struck Wilmington and stronger legislation was enacted by the General Assembly that required the establishment of local boards of health to address health problems such as diseases, unhealthy tenements, waste disposal, and quarantines.4 The State Board of Health (RG 1536) had been established in 1879, but there evidently was reluctance on the part of smaller municipalities to concur with its mandates.) The Wilmington Board, concurrent with this tougher legislation, expanded its organization to consist of the port physician, two other physicians, one practical plumber, one general business man, the chief engineer of the surveying department, and two executive offices. These offices were split between eastern and western city districts in order to examine the sanitary condition of all houses in the city.5
In 1894, the Board was composed of the president, secretary, treasurer, port physician, city engineer, two executive officers, and two assistants. By 1924, the organization had expanded to include the president, secretary, two assistants, six executive officers, five vaccinating physicians, the superintendent of garbage collection, the superintendent of the crematory, the meat inspector, and the milk inspector.6 Beginning around 1920, minutes of the Wilmington City Council contained a regular report by the Public Health Committee, which often included activities of the Board of Health.
In 1988 various Wilmington city agencies fulfill the health responsibilities of the city. The Building and Housing Inspection Department handle matters regarding the buildings. The city’s port, which has become a prime international shipping location, is governed by the Port of Wilmington Authority. The city’s Public Works Department oversees trash collection and disposal. Finally, matters of sanitation, such as restaurant inspection, are handled by the Licenses and Inspection Department. Any problems relative to diseases are handled by an appropriate agency within the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services (RG 1500).

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1 1 D.L., ch 37a

2 1 D.L., ch 134

3History of Delaware, J. Thomas Scharf, Vol. I, p. 664

4 16 D.L., ch 345

5 Scharf, Ibid.

6 Minutes of the Wilmington Board of Health, 1924
jlf: 2/9/89; February 28, 1989

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