Breathitt’s Health in 1915

By Stephen D. Bowling

On June 22, 1916, The Berea Citizen published some statistics about Breathitt County that give modern historians an interesting look into the county shortly after the turn of the century and just before World War I. Breathitt County had several doctors and at least two hospitals.

The home of Dr. M. E. Hoge on Main Street also served as a local hospital complete with a state-of-the-art operating room.

The information published by the Berea paper was fascinating as it indicated that Breathitt County had a population of 19,238 and recorded only 80 deaths. Of the Kentucky Death Certificates recorded, six victims died of violence, six of cancer, and 18 were children under the age of one year. The deaths that were reported also noted a high rate of tuberculosis of the lungs and pneumonia.

Breathitt County Statistics

State Registrar W. L. Heizer has made out the following figures for his preliminary report as to the vital statistics of Breathitt County for 1915.

County of Breathitt, Population 19,238

Total Births- 546

Total Deaths- 80

Birth Rate per 1,000 population- 28.4

Death Rate per 1,000 population- 4.2

Deaths By Ages

            1 year and under- 18

Dr. Wilgus Bach was a pioneer in Breathitt County medicine before he died in 1936 of a stomach ailment.

            1 to 5 years- 7

            65 and older- 10

Preventable Disease Deaths

            Tuberculosis of the Lungs- 9

            Other Tuberculosis- 0

            Pneumonia -broncho-pneumonia- 7

            Whooping Cough- 0

            Diphtheria-croup- 4

            Scarlet Fever- 0

            Meningitis other than Tuberculosis- 2

            Measles- 0

            Typhoid Fever- 1

            Diarrhea-enteritis (under 2)- 1

            Diarrhea-enteritis (over 2)- 2

            Hookworm Disease- 0

            Influenza (La Grippe)- 2

            Puerperal Septicemia- 1

Cancer and Violence

            Cancer- 3

            Violence- 6

The Berea Citizen, June 22, 1916, page 1
For many years, Dr. Farren Cohen “F.C.” Lewis operated a doctor’s office in the basement of the Jefferson Hotel.  Dr. Lewis (seated) and his staff for many years consisted of Nurses Florence (Smith) Dillard (left) and Mary Jane (Hudson) Dunn (standing right) seen here talking with Dr. Lewis’ wife, Margaret Helen Lewis.

Access to doctors and a basic understanding of health conditions have improved greatly since 1915. It is certain that there were many more births and deaths than were recorded. Kentucky started requiring death certificates in 1911 and hired local registrars to process deaths. Compliance varied from county o to county and from district to district, but reporting was inconsistent until the 1970s.

Maj. Nell Noble (1926 – 1990) was a renowned and decorated nurse who saw military service during the Vietnam War before coming home to Jackson.

Our population has decreased by 7,000, but the rate of death from cancer and other diseases has increased. As we grow heavier and do less physical work, instances of other health issues have also risen especially heart disease and diabetes-related conditions.

According to statistics from the University of Wisconsin, Breathitt County is ranked 119 out of Kentucky’s 120 counties in the overall health of its residents. The University of Wisconsin’s website, County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, indicated that 31% of Breathitt County residents have poor or fair health as compared to the 17% nationwide. The leading contributors to Breathitt County’s poor health are smoking, obesity, and inactivity. In 2022, Breathitt County reported 9,262 preventable hospital stays and a ratio of 6,280 patients to each dentist in the county. The survey for the county indicated that 150 deaths were the result of injuries and that 30 were treated for injuries resulting from violent crimes.

While many of the statistics may be skewed by the presence of a regional hospital in Jackson, the statistics still indicate that there is much work to do in Breathitt County. Over the years there has been a real focus on sending our students away to school and indicting them back after their graduation from medical and other schools.

In recent years, the “brain drain” of local doctors and healthcare workers not returning home has increased. Local schools are still turning out healthcare workers, but not at the pace needed. Our local health department and the medical community are working hard to improve conditions, but much remains for us to do as a community to help improve healthcare access for all of us.

© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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