House Bill 52 of the 1947 Legislative Session established a State Health Department consisting of a State Health Council, a State Health Officer and Division Directors. Until this time, county health officers oversaw most of the hospitals, clinics and related programs. In the populated eastern counties, the cost of running the County Health Office was easier to absorb, but western counties struggled with the load. One important aspect of House Bill 52, was that it allowed the State Health Department to promote local health services as it saw fit, which allowed the combination of less populated counties into one health district funded by the counties as well as the state and federal governments.
One this date in 1950, the Custer District Health Unit, comprised of the counties of Mercer, Morton, Grant and Sioux Counties, reported on its progress after completing only five months of operations. Working out of Mandan, the Unit boasted twelve full- or part-time employees, including the district health officer, two county health officers, nurses and sanitarians. Dr. Cecil Smith of Mandan was District Health Officer, assisted by Dr. Enders of Hazen and Dr. Salamone of Elgin. The Nursing Division was headed by Irma Smith, assisted by Iryne Berg. Sanitarians were headed by Joe Pratchner, assisted by Frank Gilchrist, Vincent Kavaney and Bert Strothman.
Supervised by a District Board of Health, the unit immediately began a process of preventive health services through vaccinations and screening clinics. Other basic duties included inspection of healthcare and food facilities. The Public Health nurse, with her bottle of castor oil, visited the schools on a routine basis. At the time these units were established, polio was epidemic – causing paralysis and even death, mostly in children. With the help of new medications and large scale vaccinations, it was largely under control within several decades. Measles outbreaks were another concern, and once again, immunizations were the answer.
Frank Gilchrist eventually assumed the role as administrator in the 1960s and remained head of the Custer District Health for thirty-eight years. Under his direction, the unit continued to evolve as a total family care center – for children, seniors, pregnant mothers, supplemental food programs and health screening.
Custer Health now has forty full- and part-time staff and has evolved to cover more services. However, its mission is the same as it was in 1950 – to bring a healthier way of life to the communities it serves.
Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis
The Bismarck Tribune January 3, 1999