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The mission of local health departments in the U.S. is traced from the 1920s to the present through examination of official promulgations of the American Public Health Association and other organizations. As the communicable diseases came under general control, this mission was conceived more broadly. Nevertheless, in effect their public health role was diminished due to the rapid ascendancy of private and not-for-profit medical care, which consistently sought to keep public health out of potential areas of competition. Thinking both within the public health field (as represented by C.-E.A. Winslow) and outside the public health field (as represented by the American Medical Association), had created boundaries limiting public health’s role to preventive medical services. This restriction, in turn, largely excluded the public health field from participation in the tremendous expansion of medical care since World War II. The public health role was further limited in 1970 by the removal of much of environmental pollution from its purview. The sum of these and other forces has left the public health field weakened and in considerable confusion about its role at a time when the resurgence of infectious
disease (e.g., AIDS and
Lyme disease), environmental hazards, and medical care institutions requires a strong public health presence.