Union hospital staff

The staff of Union Hospital in the 1930s. Seated: Dr. H. A. Cantwell, Miss Mary Delancy, Dr. J. H. Bates, Dr. Winfred Morrison; standing: Dr. Milfred Sprecher, Dr. Richard Dodson, Dr. Vernon McKnight, Dr. H. V. Davis, Dr. Jacob Greenwald.

Do you have any information on the county’s health officer in 1918?

— Andrea Capparell

When the Spanish influenza appeared in Cecil County in 1918, the man on the frontline of the battle here was Dr. H. Arthur Cantwell. The county commissioners had appointed the North East physician to a term as the Cecil County Public Health Officer in April 1918, months before the virus struck locally. Once the outbreak became widespread in September and October, the county’s physician, took charge as the point person responsible for protecting public health. Never before in the history of the county had the health officer been thrust into the forefront of a major county-wide health emergency, a global pandemic. In those turbulent weeks, the virus killed over 100 people locally and infected many more as he provided decisive leadership at the helm of the emergency. With the cases swelling, as doctors became overwhelmed, and nurses fell ill, he acted swiftly, promptly calling the shots that reduced suffering locally. One of his first actions to stamp out the spreading germs took place on Oct. 2, 1918, when the local Board of Health issued orders shuttering the doors to all places where people assembled for an indefinite period. Struggling to keep a lid on things, he also arranged to have information printed that alerted people to good hygiene practices that help slow the spread of the viral killer. The streets suddenly grew quiet and still, with few exceptions as the newspaper columns filled with obituaries. Six days later, the Maryland Board of Health followed along, issuing a statewide directive. Finally, toward the end of October, the suffering and death declined, so on Oct. 27, the Cecil County Board of Health lifted the ban on public assembly. To a significant degree, Cecil County activity stopped or slowed for 25 days in 1918. Dr. Cantwell, 89, died on Dec. 29, 1972. Part of his lasting legacy was leading the county’s fight against a global pandemic as the public health officer.

— Mike Dixon

Do you have a question about Cecil County that the Historical Society of Cecil County’s panel of experts might be able to answer? Send them to history@cecilwhig.com.

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