Women outside Multnomah County's first hospital.

By 1890, local government was just starting to embrace public health. City officials were combating contaminated drinking water, food-borne diseases and sickness among children.

In 1909, the Multnomah County Commissioners bought an old mansion on Second Avenue between Hooker and Hood for $50,000. They invested another $38,000 in renovations into a 65-bed hospital to care for residents. The county physician cared for the sick with 21 volunteer physicians.

By 1920 the county had partnered with University of Oregon Medical School to provide a new Multnomah County Hospital on nine acres on Marquam Hill. The $1.25 million hospital could house 500 patients.

Nurse feeding patient in Multnomah County hospital, 1945.

Before the Great Depression, Multnomah County was on the cutting edge of public health. A 1929 report from the City Club of Portland boasted that “Portland is almost wholly free from health problems peculiar to the area in which it is located...The city has, of course, the general health problems which confront all communities and demand an efficient health personnel and a well equipped health department to properly cope with them.”

With a population of more than 300,000 people, Multnomah County had a sound public health system. Portland, which accounted for the vast amount of residents, had 655 physicians, 18 osteopaths, and 67 public health officials. Yet it needed more to combat venereal diseases, smallpox and cancer.