PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Talk of merging Portage health agencies isn't new

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The first physician to practice medicine in Portage County appears to have been Dr. Shadrach Bostwick, a part-time preacher who opened a medical office in Deerfield in 1803. Others followed in Ravenna, Aurora, Palmyra and Randolph during the first decade of the 19th Century.

The early doctors were healers on horseback, ministering to the sick in cabins in sparsely populated settlements. Their medical equipment was whatever they could carry in their saddlebags, the treatment they were able to administer primitive by today's standards.

"Few today have seen the genuine old doctor's shop of the last century," T.C. Hunston wrote in 1957 in "Portage Heritage," the county's sesquicentennial history, "or inhaled the odor arising from paper bag bundles, bottles stopped with worm-eaten corks and open jars of ointment."

The pioneer physicians, according to Hunston, were "tender, fearless, often gruff to hide their tender hearts" -- men who often dealt with medical challenges that often defied treatment. Infant mortality was high, outbreaks of disease often took a terrible toll on entire families and epidemics could have devastating consequences for entire communities. In 1845, black erysepilas, a streptococcal infection of the skin, took the lives of 49 residents of Rootstown -- 5 percent of the settlement's population.

As Portage County neared the dawn of the 20th Century, the concept of public health spurred the creation of health departments in Kent and Ravenna as well as the formation of what is now the Portage County Health Department. While modern medicine has, thankfully, eliminated many of the health issues that they once dealt with -- such as diphtheria, smallpox and polio -- the three departments continue to provide public health services for county residents.

The issue of merging their operations has been in the headlines recently. A $125,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will fund a two-year study of the benefits of shared services and consolidation of the three departments. Kent State University's College of Public Health will play a major role in the discussion, too.

Talk of merging health operations in Portage County isn't new. It also was in the news 50 years ago, and many of the issues raised then sound quite familiar.

Formation of a countywide public health system was "enthusiastically approved" by the Advisory Council of the Portage County General General Health District at its annual meeting in March 1963. The council, which included township representatives, directed health officials to approach the cities of Kent and Ravenna with a merger proposal.

Combining the three departments would mean better health services for county residents, health officials said, but the overriding reason -- then, as now -- was money.

"Our financial problems would be eased considerably," said Dr. John Wisely, the county's health commissioner.

The health district relied on a 0.4-mill levy and license fees to fund its operations in 1963. It had no cash reserve; a $6,000 cushion had been spent because the townships refused to provide any funding for health services. A 0.1-mill additional levy was on the upcoming ballot and officials hoped that would provide additional funding.

"If we want a first-class department, we have to pay for it," health board member Victor Moore said.

The Portage County Medical Society endorsed the idea of merging health operations. "Disease knows no city or township boundaries," said Dr. Robert Glasgow, society president.

The Record-Courier also urged support for combining the departments. "A beginning in the direction of broadened government responsibility could be made here first in the field of public health," the newspaper observed in an editorial.

The merger proposal was the second to surface in six years. An earlier plan for a countywide health department died in 1957 when the city of Kent backed out of it.

The 1963 proposal met the same fate. It was presented to Kent and Ravenna for consideration, but no agreement was reached. The 0.1-mill levy also went down to defeat in what would prove to be a familiar outcome. The county health district has not approved new voted millage since 1955.

Many of the arguments raised in favor of a merger 50 years ago remain valid today. Whether the latest discussion will end differently remains to be seen.

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