The maverick at the center of Chicago’s 1918 flu response | Sightseeing | Chicago Reader

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The maverick at the center of Chicago’s 1918 flu response

Meet Dr. John Dill Robertson, the "utterly unqualified" head of the Chicago Health Department

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The last great public health emergency in Chicago on the scale of COVID-19 was the influenza epidemic in the autumn of 1918. Even though 8,510 Chicagoans died of influenza and pneumonia over a period of eight weeks, Mayor William Hale Thompson made no public pronouncements about the epidemic. The city’s response to the crisis was left to Health Commissioner John Dill Robertson, a man distrusted by Chicago’s medical establishment.

Dr. Robertson was a certain kind of Chicago success story. After stints as a telegraph operator and train dispatcher, he graduated in 1896 from Bennett Eclectic Medical School in Chicago. In December 1903, Dr. Robertson, a surgeon at Cook County Hospital and a professor at the American College of Medicine and Surgery, presented a medical paper that garnered international attention.

Bathing, Robertson claimed, was a profoundly unhealthy habit that encouraged infectious diseases. The problem wasn’t the purity or temperature of water, but the way washing caused “overheating the body,” thus leaving “the internal organs without their necessary amount of nourishment.” Robertson concluded his speech by telling the story of an Inuit boy, brought from Greenland to Boston, who died of pneumonia after taking a bath. Robertson confirmed to the Chicago Record-Herald that he hadn’t taken more than four or five baths in the last decade. Doctors and newspapermen alike portrayed Robertson as a crackpot. “Prof. John Dill Robertson Points to Latest Human Peril, Water,” remarked the Chicago Tribune

Although faculty members at Bennett Eclectic Medical School had once accused Robertson of supplying his students the questions used to examine candidates for internships in Cook County, Robertson became president of his alma mater in 1908. The Flexner Report, a sweeping investigation of American medical schools, commented that the anatomy room of Bennett Eclectic contained “a few cadavers as dry as leather.” The school was a “frankly commercial” enterprise, little more than a stock company practically owned by its president, with “enough others to legalize the thing.” Bennett eventually affiliated itself with Loyola University.

To his credit, Robertson gave young men from disadvantaged backgrounds a shot at the medical profession. Ben Reitman, Chicago’s famed hobo doctor, was a former student. Even though Robertson had opened his own hospital, his grasp on contagion remained shaky, even by the standards of the day. In 1911, he gave a speech to a brewers’ convention in Chicago in which he elaborated how beer kills the “malaria germ.” Robertson personally had noticed that Welsh teetotalers in one Kansas town were susceptible to malaria, whereas German residents, who drank bitter, homemade brew, were not. After operating on dog spleens, Robertson concluded the “bitter principle” in bile stopped malaria and “other germs.” 

In addition to his talents as an academic entrepreneur, Robertson was a gifted political operator. Alongside Fred Lundin, a former congressman who had once been a patent medicine salesman, Robertson worked on the mayoral campaign of William Hale Thompson. With his network of former and current students, Robertson was effective in getting out the vote. 

Thompson awarded Robertson the plum job of the head of the Chicago Health Department. To the embarrassment of City Hall, Health Commissioner Robertson gave homeless men in the city-run lodging homes the option of cleaning up with either cottonseed oil or soap and water. (Robertson reportedly slathered up with olive oil.) But the Chicago Health Department under Robertson made strides in expanding city sanitation, food inspection, water purification, and vaccinations. 

On the other hand, Robertson quickly made an enemy of Dr. Theodore Sachs, the head of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. Robertson had not only once claimed that an anti-bathing movement might stop the spread of tuberculosis, he had more recently backed a quack tuberculosis cure peddled by a politically connected doctor. In contrast, Sachs was president of the National Tuberculosis Association, working for tuberculosis prevention in Chicago slums for decades.

Sachs believed that the new administration was undermining patient care by making hiring and contract decisions based on political connections. Thompson and Robertson in turn accused Sachs of being financially extravagant, incompetent, and dictatorial. As Sachs resigned from the sanitarium he had worked tirelessly to build, Frank Billings, one of the most respected physicians in the city, called Robertson “utterly unqualified.”

On April 2, 1916, Sachs committed suicide. For reformers and the medical establishment, Sachs was a martyr to grotesque political corruption. Although The Republican, a propaganda sheet literally published in an office in City Hall, sneered that suicide “occasionally has been a haven of moral cowards who preferred the shelter of death to public exposure of their shortcomings,” Robertson took a less confrontational tone after Sachs’s death. Still, he refused to step down. 

Given Robertson’s checkered past, it’s a wonder that many more Chicagoans didn’t die of influenza in October 1918. With 58 reported cases of influenza on September 24, 1918, he laughed as he told the Chicago Daily News that there was “no cause whatever for alarm.” Within a week, reality set in. 

Because influenza was a threat to the war effort, the Council of National Defense founded the Illinois Influenza Commission, a task force made up of the public health leadership of the state, including Robertson. With its long, tragic history of epidemics, Chicago had developed a large infrastructure for dealing with infectious diseases. Even Robertson’s critics admitted that he had a talent for organization, which was badly needed in coordinating relief efforts. Surrounded by scientists and experienced public health experts on the Illinois Influenza Commission, Robertson couldn’t unilaterally chase get-well-quick schemes.

Even if he had wanted to, Robertson couldn’t touch anything related to the war effort. Mayor Thompson was under close federal scrutiny for his passive-aggressive statements against the American war effort. Robertson had to have known that Chicagoans who cared deeply about the war or were dependent on high-paying jobs in essential industries at a time of high inflation would not have, in all likelihood, stood for radical stay-at-home measures. The epidemic peaked in Chicago after a packed parade for war bonds in the Loop.

Yet the need to protect the war effort did strengthen Robertson’s hand in shutting down theaters, restaurants, and other “nonessential” gathering places whose ownership normally had significant clout in Chicago. Robertson threatened landlords who didn’t heat apartments and hospitals that turned away flu patients. Some of Robertson’s pronouncements, such as placing a piece of paper over telephone receivers, walking home from work instead of taking streetcars, wearing masks, and substituting handshakes and kisses with saluting, may have seemed kooky before COVID-19, but have a certain air of wisdom today. 

Robertson wasn’t shy in claiming his role in seeing the city through the epidemic, but it wasn’t enough to undo his image as a political hack. He resigned as health commissioner in 1922 but didn’t leave politics behind. Managed by Lundin, Robertson challenged Thompson for the Republican nomination for mayor in 1926. Thompson held a deranged “debate” at the Cort Theater, in which he berated two caged rats named Fred and Doc. Telling the audience that he had given Doc his first bath in 20 years, Thompson asked the rat if he remembered “how many people came to me to protest against my appointment of you as health commissioner?”

Thompson went on to win the general election for mayor the following year, with Robertson garnering under six percent as a splinter candidate. In March 1931, Robertson was knocked unconscious in the Illinois senate during a loud argument over licensing truck drivers. Never regaining his health, he died that October at Dill-Crest, his comfortable Lake Geneva summer home.  v

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