Beyond Steel

The recent influenza epidemic provided an opportunity for combined Bethlehem–north and south Bethlehem had merged in 1917–Archibald Johnston stressed the importance of strong government in creating a healthy community. Johnston, a lifelong resident of Bethlehem, in his first mayor report argued against the libertarian attitudes of his constituency; they preferred no restrictions on the use of their property and low taxes, which also left city government with little to do. Using an argument that other progressives had used, he argued that health could not be just a private and individual matter. Contagion, such as the influenza, affected everyone rich or poor, clean or dirty. Johnston put forward a classic progressive platform of strong city government that had to the power make Bethlehem an attractive, safe, and healthy city. This program included city planning and property zoning regulations, insuring clean water, safely removing sewage, paving streets, and collecting garbage. He reassured his fellow citizens that rather than limiting their freedom, "the acts of the city with regard to public welfare shall actually enlarge the scope of individual opportunity."

In spite of the recent flu epidemic, Johnston was unable to carry out most of his reforms. With regard to public health, a study was done in 1925 by a New York physician, Haven Emerson. Interestingly, it was commissioned by the trustees of St. Lukes Hospital and Community Chest, not by the city. The report noted that little had changed:

The general situation is that of a community with ample means and without serious financial burdens which has either ignored or been wholly unaware of the possibilities of public service through a competent and professionally directed health bureau, which most other cities of similar size ...have learned to trust. The prevailing attitude is apparently contentment with the present order and little or no interest or curiosity as to the possibilities of improvement which would be expressed in safer, longer, richer, happier lives. While a reasonably adequate public health service can not be had without paying or it, there would be little use in urging more expenditures until the people and their elected officers are convinced that competent professional direction of health protection is desirable.

Without much centralized direction or oversight, public health in Bethlehem was being administered by a variety of agencies, especially the Community Chest, that did not even coordinate activities with each other. The financial commitment of the city to public health was minimal. Apparently, the lessons of the Great Influenza had quickly been forgotten as Bethlehem turned away from disease and warm, and plunged head long into the roaring twenties.


[1] Report of the Board of Health of the City of Allentown, Pa., For the Year 1905. Page 6.

[2] After 1895, most of the Annual Reports of the Executive Committee of St. Luke's Hospital lamented Bethlehem Steel's lack of commitment to underwriting the health of its workforce and instead relying upon St. Luke's Hospital to provide nearly free service.

[3] Gordon Fister, Half- Century: The Fifty-Year of the Allentown Hospital, 1899-1949.(Allentown: Board of Trustees of the Allentown Hospital, 1949).

[4] Allentown Morning Call. September 29, 1918.

[5] Bethlehem Globe-Times. October 3, 1918.

[6] Morning Call. October 2, 1918.

[7] Letter dated October 17, 1918 from Dr. C. D Schaefer, Surgeon-in-Chief Allentown Hospital to Allen Hagenbach, Chairman of District Draft Exemption Board.

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