In May of 1922, Denton had a small, but fatal epidemic of smallpox. Dr. Piner, the City Health Officer (CHO), reported that they lost four out of the five cases. The health department, with the help of the police, tracked down everyone they felt had been exposed and quarantined 23 persons who they immediately “double” and “triple” vaccinated, which resulted in “not a single secondary case.”1
After reporting to the State Board of Health and the State Health Officer the condition in Denton, Dr. Piner along with Dr. Fullingim, and their staff, worked to vaccinate more than 4,000 people in a week’s time, including “more than 200 who could not or did not have money even to pay.” And they were all vaccinated a second time!
The town, he reported, was full of sore arms.
Dr. Frank Ewing Piner was born on January 1, 1869 to Judge Finas Ewing Piner and his wife Henrietta McCleary. He was among the first graduating class in 1886 of Denton High School. And, for a short time after, he was the Secretary of the Owsley Hose Company for the Denton Fire Department, which was noted in the 1890 Denton Business Directory. He then attended medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans from 1892-1894, accepting the position as the County Health Officer in November of 1894.
The City Health Officer
Much like today, the Health Department has many duties. However, the names and types duties were quite different at that time, and they relied on the help of the general public and police department for their assistance. As the CHO, Dr. Piner had to interact with the Office of the City “Scavenger” regularly. This office was created to “haul off to the city dumping grounds all filth (i.e. human feces), garbage, dead animals, rubbish and offensive manner. And, their job had to be done between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.2
Below is a list of typical duties the Health Department had to inspect each month and report to the mayor and city commissioners:
Inspect all public ground sewerage disposal; the city dumping ground – which was listed as being one mile northeast of town; the trash – which was a mile east of town; the public well water: sending specimens to the state board of health and adding minnows to the wells to eat mosquito larvae; keeping up with all public health conditions – including vaccinations, quarantines, and fumigating as needed; making sure everyone’s dry closets passed the closet ordinance; and all manner of nuisance calls, such as someone having too many hogs in one pen, or investigating the source of any peculiar smells.
We’re In the Pest House Now
By the time 1900 had rolled around Frank had gained quite a bit of experience. He’d dealt with previous smallpox epidemics in 1895 and 1899. And, in addition to having his own practice, he’d traveled the county far-and-wide to visit patients and assist other physicians in their surgeries, such as Dr. Inge in the removal of one of the eyeballs of a man by the name of C. W. McCombs. Squeamish, he was not. At the age of 26, he even attended the hanging of J. Q. A. Crews, along with other physicians to pronounced the man dead.
Following the alarming 1899 smallpox epidemic , he accepted the position of City Health Officer, succeeding Dr. Lipscomb. The two traded on-and-off for the position until 1909 when Frank was appointed once again because of another small pox outbreak. And in 1910, he brought up “the need for a city pest house to the attention to the council” as well as prodding the city commissioners to invest in cleaning up the creeks which were a breeding ground for mosquitoes and disease.
In 1913, he was appointed deputy pure food inspector to the Texas Pure Food and Dairy Commission and was given a list of many things to inspect within the city, such as testing the city’s milk and dairy cows and making sure the doors to all of the meat markets, grocery stores, restaurants, and bakeries all had screen doors to keep the flies out.3
The American Plan
During and after WWI, there was an increase in venereal diseases around town, and well, everywhere. For instance, in the final City Health Officer’s reports for 1921 Piner states,“we have had much gossip about [the] town being full of venereal disease. This is not true. These diseases have been reduced 50 percent during the past year.” This cannot be verified, however, as there are no surviving reports before 1920.
Using the CHO Reports available in the City Secretary’s Collection of the Municipal Archive, we examined the reports from 1920-1921 to see how many cases of STDs had been reported on. Some of the reports are missing – so with only six months to go on for each month, we took an average. In 1920, Denton had a population of 7,626. The number of venereal diseases would have been around 80 for 1920 and 120 for 1921.
In his report on August 24, 1920, Dr. Piner discussed, “The past month we have had 4 cases of syphilis and 2 cases of gonorrhea. Only two of these cases were home product [from Denton]. Some of the cases on hand are without means as the treatment of syphilis is expensive. They require about 12 doses of the 606 medicine which costs about $2.00 per dose. The State Venereal Law requires the city to have these cases treated and if necessary, provide a place for their detention…Have had lots of help from the Police force in enforcing this law.”
Well, what law? Turns out, the “American Plan” was passed at the beginning of World War I to incarcerate and treat female prostitutes from spreading STDs to soldiers. As all physicians were required to report these cases to the city health officer, who was then required to quarantine [which was usually in a jail] these women until they were considered “cured.”
So did Denton participate in this plan? Yes, yes, we did.
CHO Report, February 22, 1921: “In our raid the last meeting night on a house west of town, we found the reputation of the place was not exaggerated. One [woman] was found infected, another was just convalescing from an attack. In summing up the women that have been taken by the city officers, the Health department found that in this class of women 7-out-of-10 infected. In the work we have done in the enforcement of the venereal law convinces me that it is the greatest law ever passed. Our books show that. this law reduced the number of cases 50%.”
Something interesting to note, no one seemed to use the term prostitute or prostitution in either the newspaper or in any of the CHO reports. The term was usually “case,” the “traveler,” or the “home product.” However, they did not shy away from the phrase “venereal disease.”
The Rain Prophet
From 1924-1925, the country suffered from a severe drought. According to the Denton Record-Chronicle, the ‘rain prophets’ were getting more numerous. Several have ventured predictions that it was “going to rain” and that the drouth would be broken when the rain came. Frank Piner is dubious about Ed Smoot’s act in turning the dead snakes belly upward to bring rain, and says by all means the snakes should have been hung up in a tree – which is pretty unfailing in bringing rain.4
So what about the ending? In the midst of all of these reports, there’s a man who had a sense of humor, a family, and appeared to care deeply about taking care of his community; something that he did for 48 years.
Such a long time.
In reading his reports, we’re not told of his personal struggles, or the hardships endured by a doctor until later on in life. A rather lengthy article appeared in DRC in which he chronicles some early memories of being a country doctor.
He [Dr. Piner] was a character, said Mr. Headlee in the October 21, 1948 issue of his Denton Doings. He died before he wrote a planned history of “The Rise and Fall of Oak Street.” That history would have been good.
Leslie Couture, Special Collections Department, Emily Fowler Library
1Denton County News, May 16, 1895, p.8, c.4. “Denton County Free From Smallpox, Says Dr. Piner, Health Officer.”
2Record and Chronicle, August 4, 1910, p.6. “City Scavenger.”
3Denton Record-Chronicle, October 10, 1913, p.1 – “Commissions Here for Food Inspectors. State Commissioner Abbott Forwards Commissions to Dr. F. E. Piner and Mrs. Murphy.”
4Denton Record-Chronicle, April 23, 1925, p.5 c.2 – “Rain prophets.”