Solvay Hospital

Health Concerns in Early Delray

Image: Solvay Hospital in Delray, early twentieth century. Image from River Rouge Historical Museum

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The booming Detroit industries of the early twentieth century brought enormous demand for more workers as more and more industries arose in low-cost, highly accessible neighborhoods such as Delray. The low real estate prices and rents also attracted poor immigrants from around the world. Around 1910 Romanians, Serbs, Turks, Armenians, Austrians, Hungarians, and others flooded into the area. But the low cost of living translated into low standards of living, as well: bereft of even the most basic sanitation and with increasingly aged and inadequate infrastructure, many of the new residents were living in unspeakable conditions. Overcrowding of large numbers of people in these extremely small apartments and houses caused overflowing cesspools. The wells that the neighbors had dug for drinking water were sunk only a few feet into the sand, in close proximity to the cesspools, making the water unfit even for washing purposes. Lacking an alternative source, people in Delray used the well water anyway, even for cooking and drinking. The area was consequently at constant risk from typhoid outbreaks, as well as tuberculosis and other diseases common in poor urban living conditions.

In 1906, the village of Delray was annexed by the City of Detroit, in part as an effort to address the significant infrastructural deficits that were endangering its population. Shortly thereafter, local residents came together with concerned medical professionals to address the dangers of tuberculosis and other diseases in the neighborhood. In 1909, Dr. Leo H. Herbert, the founder of the Detroit Tuberculosis Sanatorium and a leader on health issues in Detroit, along with other renowned physicians of the time, spoke out against Detroit’s neglect of Delray’s environmental injustice during the Anti-Tuberculosis meeting. The filth and litter that filled the alleyways and cramped cottages, he claimed, were breeding grounds for tuberculosis. Aside from the health risks, the lack of proper leisure space for children, such as parks and playgrounds, created an unsuitable, and even disgraceful, living environment for Delray residents. Dr. Herbert pointed at the Solvay Processing Company, in particular, as the cause of death for plants in the area, suggesting that its impacts on humans would be similarly detrimental. The doctor argued that the children in Delray were constantly in danger of contracting tuberculosis at school because of their poor living conditions.

In May 1911, Delray Tuberculosis Clinic opened in order to fight the disease by educating the people of Delray about the disease and how it spread. Shortly thereafter, city authorities finally organized a major cleanup process to address the poor sanitary conditions and abate the risk of typhoid fever, starting by condemning local wells as un-usable and begin to mainline water into Delray from other sources. The Board of Health also acquired the Tuberculosis Clinic to carry on its work and further assist the community of Delray.

Race added an additional dimension to Delray’s health problems. Due to racial segregation in Detroit’s hospitals and the growing tuberculosis epidemic, only black-owned and -operated hospitals served the rapidly growing African American population’s health crises. While hospitals like the Bethesda Hospital (opened 1931) and the Good Samaritan Hospital (opened 1929) made progress in combating tuberculosis for minorities, it remained a major threat in poor neighborhoods around the city.

Ironically, one of the measures taken to prevent the spread of infectious diseases would in fact create new health risks for residents of Delray. In addition to tuberculosis and typhoid, urban residents across the country lived in fear of diseases such as the Spanish Flu, which killed millions worldwide in 1918. For prevention, the medical community encouraged people to wash their walls to help avoid disease.  The smooth surface of painted walls allowed them to be readily washed with either water and soap or a disinfectant. Paint was thus greatly preferred over wallpaper the texture of which could trap bacteria, and which tended to disintegrate or come unpasted after repeated washings. The master painters who people hired to paint their homes often preferred paints with lead pigments, which provided smoother coverage. The early twentieth century therefore saw a large increase in the demand for lead paint nationwide.

Delray was home to twenty-seven different lead paint factories. The national leader for lead paint production, Acme White Lead and Color Works, expanded its Detroit factory in 1908, and was soon joined by competitors such as Borydell White Lead and Color Works, Detroit Graphite Company, Ditzler Color Company, and many others. With the expansion of business came a need for workers, who were primarily found in among the unskilled laborers who lived in Delray and other low-income neighborhoods. Those workers, in addition to living in homes with lead paint on the walls, were also exposed to high levels of lead through direct contact during the  manufacturing process.

Across the country, labor unions and public  health officials expressed concerns with worker exposure to “clouds of dust” laced with lead in factories. After multiple law suits against companies about deaths from lead poisoning, industries worked with labor unions and public health officials to minimize worker exposure to lead dust.  These actions reduced occupational lead poisoning without ending the use of lead paint, which would continue to contaminate homes and soil for decades.

  • “Making a Better Detroit,” Detroit Free Press, July 1 1917, E1.
  • Center for Disease Control, “Tuberculosis”, Center for Disease Control, http://www.cdc.gov/tb/topic/basics/default.htm (accessed April 04, 2014).
  • Keith Collier, “History of Tuberculosis”, University of Newfoundland, http://www.heritage.nf.ca/society/tb_20th.html (accessed April 05,2014)
  • “INDUSTRIAL DETROIT: DETROIT IS LEADER IN PRODUCTION OF PAINTS, VARNISHES Millions of Gallons Flow From Vats of Local Firms,” Gannett Co., Inc. Detroit Free Press, Jan 23, 1922, 14.
  • Understanding lead pigment litigation, “Why lead based paint was used”, Lead pigment litigation,http://www.leadlawsuits.com/index.php?s=699 (accessed April 03, 2014).
  • The Northwestern ReporterThe Northwestern Reporter, 148 (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1914), 485. 
  • Clarence Monroe Burton, William Stocking, Gordon K. MillerThe City of Detroit, Michigan, 1 (Detroit: The S. J. Clack Publishing Compnay, 1922), 558.

Click here to see all narratives on Delray

Click here to see a timeline of events in Delray

Click here to see resources for further reading on Delray

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