Celebrating 175 years of Directors of Public Health

Blog post from Councillor David Fothergill celebrating the achievements of Directors of Public Health and where it all started in 1847 when Liverpool became the first city in the world to appoint an officer of health.

To mark the 175th anniversary of the first Medical Officer of Health (now known as a Director of Public Health - DPH), we have commissioned a series of interviews with the Association of Directors of Public Health, exploring the varied and invaluable role of a DPH.

We wanted to mark this important milestone by recognising the rich heritage and community of which directors are an important part and acknowledge the important role they continue to play in contributing to the future of protecting and improving the public’s health.

The history of public health is built on a long tradition of innovation, compassion, curiosity and the relentless push for progress.

Improving health in Victorian times concentrated on developments in sanitation, living and working conditions, and tackling infectious diseases.

Today’s directors of public health are working to address the impacts of climate change, poor mental health, preparing for future epidemics and working out how new technologies are revolutionising our ability to prevent, diagnose and treat many illnesses.

In 1847, Liverpool became the first city in the world to appoint a Medical Officer of Health when it appointed Dr William Henry Duncan. You can even visit a pub in honour of its namesake.

Duncan challenged the commonly held conception that it was the fault of the poor themselves that they became ill; he viewed social poverty as the cause, not individuals, and looked into things like improving sanitation and housing to help the situation.

Many of the public health challenges have remained as major public health concerns for centuries. The absolute and relative magnitude of these issues in various communities may have changed, but they still remain serious public health concerns especially among the poorest and most disadvantaged in society.

Directors of Public Health came back to local government in 2013 with an ethos of using influence and evidence to encourage all parts of their council to actively promote health and wellbeing – creating a public health council – a council-wide public health team – a public health family. This ethos continues to be widely embraced today.

In spite of the many changes the world has seen over the past 175 years, please join us as we mark the rich history of directors of public health and celebrate how that spirit endures today.