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Before Fauci, there was Ohage: St. Paul's health czar

18December 2021

When 1,200 doctors gathered in the Twin Cities in 1930 for the Interstate Postgraduate Medical Association convention, they took a minute to honor an old colleague.

Born in Germany in 1849, Dr. Justus Ohage had emigrated to the United States in 1863, moved to St. Paul in 1881, become the first American surgeon to successfully remove a gallbladder in 1886, mandated smallpox vaccines as St. Paul’s health commissioner in the early 1900s and donated Harriet Island to the city as a park to boost public health.

Ohage had just turned 81 when the doctors toasted him at the convention. “The physicians and surgeons rose to their feet and applauded as the aged doctor made a bow,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported — a graceful gesture from a surgeon known for his gifted hands and scrappy demeanor.

Trained in Germany and Scotland, Ohage first hung his doctor’s shingle in St. Paul in the 1880s and moved into a new brick Queen Anne in Irvine Park with a turret tower on one corner. He would take out a mortgage on the house to help purchase Harriet Island, where the public baths — a term for swimming beaches — were aimed at improving public hygiene in an era before running water was common.

Truly a man before his time, Ohage removed 135 gallstones as well as the gall sac from a woman during his pioneering operation at St. Joseph’s Hospital. When lumberjacks from unsanitary camps aimed to visit St. Paul in 1902, he required them to show proof of smallpox vaccination.

And Ohage regularly dragged polluting railroad honchos and building owners to court for violating city smoke emission ordinances, in hopes of clearing the city’s sooty skies of coal smoke.

“Dr. Ohage is rated as one of the greatest authorities on public health and sanitation in this country, and one of the best public health officials in any city,” the Tribune reported in 1915. Time and again, “he clashed with the old St. Paul [City] Council on matters of public health, and there is no record of his failure to get what he demanded.” The newspaper said Ohage “knew when to be diplomatic and when to use the mailed fist.”

University of Minnesota Prof. Larry Jacobs learned about Ohage after recently moving into the doctor’s Irvine Park house and going through a file on him that past owners had amassed. Jacobs called Ohage “a true mensch,” Yiddish for a person with high integrity.

“Lines to his free health clinic reportedly stretched out the door,” Jacobs said. “When the city offered to rename Harriet Island after him, he repulsed the effort as an insult to propriety and his moral standing.”

Ohage instead suggested naming the island after Harriet Bishop, St. Paul’s first school teacher. Years later, the city renamed the road leading to Harriet Island and the park’s Great Lawn after Ohage.

Ohage married Missouri-born Augusta Ensor, who was pregnant with their seventh child when they moved to Irvine Park. She died three months later from childbirth complications in 1889 at 34 and he never remarried, hiring domestic helpers to juggle his responsibilities as a widowed father. One of the children, Justus Jr., followed his father into surgical medicine and like him served as president of the Minnesota State Medical Association.

Ohage died at the family home on Dec. 26, 1935, at the age of 86. His obituary recounted how he was presented with a medal at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair when St. Paul was judged the world’s healthiest city. “During his career, many reforms were initiated in St. Paul to protect the citizens from disease,” the Minneapolis Star said.

But the feisty doctor lives on through his old speeches and newspaper quotes. In a 1902 address to the American League for Civic Improvement convention in St. Paul, Ohage pointed to railroads as among “the worst offenders” for the air pollution then choking the city.

“With all prosperity that these corporations boast of, they will buy a low grade of fuel, simply for the saving of a few dollars, and do not care a farthing how much misery and discomfort they cause to the people who are unfortunate enough to be their neighbors,” he said.

He recounted how one young woman, who died of tuberculosis on a hot summer night, “was denied the benefit of fresh air, because the instant her windows were opened, a locomotive would fill the house with sulphurous, nauseating smoke.”

A 1903 story described Ohage as “waging relentless war” in court against building owners and railroad engineers, forcing them to pay fines and install smoke-reducing equipment — efforts he claimed had cut emissions in St. Paul by 50%.

“A man has no more right to flood his neighbor’s house with smoke, ruining his merchandise and furniture,” Ohage fumed, “than he has to throw garbage into the windows.”

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.

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