Jefferson County Health Officer

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The Jefferson County Health Officer is the public health official for Jefferson County, appointed by the Jefferson County Board of Health to serve as director of the Jefferson County Department of Health.

Prior to the establishment of a formal authority in 1917, the county utilized the services of private physicians as health officers to prepare morbidity data and make recommendations regarding public policy. These officers were recommended by the Jefferson County Medical Association under the authority given to the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. Doctors James Luckie, Henry Winn and John Dozier served as health officers for both Jefferson County and the city of Birmingham prior to 1890.

That year the Birmingham Board of Aldermen hired two full-time sanitation officers to carry out the directives of part-time medical officer Henry Rosser. Under his leadership garbage collection and sewer connections were improved.

A dispute between the City of Birmingham and the Jefferson County Board of Health over the authority to hire and fire health officers was fought both in court and by blows in the hallway of Birmingham City Hall. Robert Harkness was dismissed as City Health Officer after making a report that blamed a rise in infant mortality on contaminated milk despite positive reports from milk inspections conducted by the city's own bacteriologist. Mayor Frank O'Brien attempted to negotiate his retention, but the Council resisted until the Alabama legislature reiterated the authority of County Medical Societies to name health officials.

Beginning in 1911, Robert Nelson served as health officer for a rapidly growing Greater Birmingham. Federal statisticians criticized the overwhelmed office for reporting nearly 80 percent of deaths as "cause unknown". Nelson's successor R. N. Cunningham saw the department grow as it resumed responsibility for food inspections and began providing nursing service to the children of poor families.

Jefferson County established a full-time health department in 1917, partly as a response to an outbreak of typhoid traced to tainted milk. It was the third such county health department to be created, following Walker County in 1914 and Tuscaloosa County in 1915.

Judson Dowling was named the county's first full-time health officer. His first task was to investigate the more than 100 independent dairies selling raw milk to the public, finding that half of the samples tested were watered down and/or adulterated with boric acid, and was also often infected with bacteria. In October 1918 he helped coordinate the response to the 1918 influenza pandemic. In 1920 he successfully lobbied for an ordinance requiring pasteurization as well as dairy inspections. One night in 1921 a group of masked men lured him from his home under false pretenses, took him into the woods and flogged him, warning him to pack up and leave town. The public responded with overwhelming support for his reforms and additional ordinances against wearing masks in public, and arranging meetings under false pretenses were passed. The number of newly-reported typhoid cases dropped from 1,825 per 100,000 to 29 per 100,000 as an estimated 80% of the milk sold in the city was pasteurized.

Health officers


  • Gann, Heather (October 12, 2023) "Jefferson County Health Officer seeks to reduce overdose, violent crime deaths."