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Our History

View a full timeline of APHA's history (PDF), previously displayed as a 150th anniversary installation at APHA's 2022 Annual Meeting and Expo.

Our founding

The American Public Health Association was founded in 1872 at a time when scientific advances were helping to reveal the causes of communicable diseases. These discoveries laid the foundation for the public health profession and for the infrastructure to support our work.

From our inception, APHA was dedicated to improving the health of all U.S. residents. Our founders recognized that two of the Association’s most important functions were advocacy for adoption by the government of the most current scientific advances relevant to public health, and public education on how to improve community health. Along with these efforts, we have also campaigned for developing well-organized health departments at both the federal and local levels.

Watch a discussion about APHA founder Dr. Stephen Smith to learn more about our early years:

Issues we champion

In the years since our founding, APHA has continued to search for and support those policies and practices that are most likely to improve the health of the public. We have played a prominent advocacy role on many issues, including assuring the availability of clean air and water, creating a safe and nutritious food supply, guiding people to adopt healthy lifestyles, monitoring the environment for adverse effects on human health, guaranteeing comprehensive and appropriate maternal and child health services, expediting the full immunization of the population against vaccine-preventable diseases, facilitating the development of safe work environments and expanding access to quality, affordable health care and preventive health services.

Our communities

We continue to seek solutions to public health issues and concerns as they arise. Our headquarters, located in Washington, D.C., provides ready access to the country's major policymakers for our advocacy and public policy efforts. Our 54 Affiliates, including those in all 50 states plus regional Affiliates in northern and southern California, New York City and metropolitan Washington, D.C., serve to connect us with public health issues at the local level. Included among our members are individuals from scores of disciplines who contribute to public health practice. The large majority of our members pursue their interests through one or more of our many Sections and Special Primary Interest Groups.

View a timeline showing when our Sections, Affiliates and Causes were established. 

In 1966, at our 94th Annual Meeting in San Francisco, we sponsored an initial meeting of delegates from 13 different foreign counterpart associations that led to the establishment of the World Federation of Public Health Associations in 1967, convening a group of delegates representing 32 national public health associations during the World Health Assembly in Geneva with 16 core member associations. APHA is an active member of the federation, through which we are involved in public health concerns of more than 70 member countries. We also actively participate in the activities of the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization.

Our programs

In addition to developing and advocating for public health policies and programs, we engage in a number of other activities, including supporting the enhancement of the scientific base of public health through reports of our members' research activities at our meetings.

APHA has played a major role in providing continuing education for all public health workers through accredited educational sessions and programs.

We publish the American Journal of Public Health, which is a refereed journal, and books, issue briefs and monographs on public health issues. We keep our members informed about major health-related issues through our award-winning newspaper, The Nation's HealthPublic Health NewswireAPHA LEADsocial media and more.

We are currently focusing our efforts on ensuring the right to health and health care, creating health equity and building public health infrastructure and capacity. We actively work to enhance collaboration with other professional organizations and develop public-private partnerships to help solve public health problems.

Each year in April, APHA serves as the organizer of National Public Health Week and develops a national campaign to educate the public, policymakers and practitioners during the week about issues related to the theme. NPHW is celebrated in every state and we create organizing and outreach materials that can be used during and after the week to advance public health issues.

In 2006, we launched the Get Ready campaign to help Americans prepare themselves, their families and their communities for all disasters and hazards. The campaign includes a blog, fact sheets, podcasts and more.

Our Leadership

Since our beginnings, APHA has benefitted from the vision and diligence of a number of extraordinary leaders. View a list of our Executive Secretaries and Directors and our Executive Board Past Presidents over the last 150 years.

Notable dates

1872: The American Public Health Association founded by Dr. Stephen Smith, a physician, attorney and commissioner of New York City’s Metropolitan Health Board, puts forth the concept of a national health service.

1893: APHA and the United States focus on the control of tuberculosis.

1895: APHA publishes the Standard Methods for the Examination of Water and Sewage.

1900: Walter Reed reports at the APHA Annual Meeting that mosquitoes carry yellow fever.

1905: APHA publishes the Standard Methods for the Examination of Milk.

1906: First federal Food and Drug Act passed; APHA publishes the American Journal of Public Hygiene.

1908: APHA’s standardized death certificate adopted by the U.S. Census.

1909: APHA publishes the Standard Methods for the Examination of Air.

1911: Journal of the American Public Health Association established, later becoming the American Journal of Public Health.

1916: APHA publishes first issue of Control of Communicable Diseases in Man.

1918: APHA postponed its Annual Meeting in reaction to a global influenza pandemic. The Association conducted scheduled discussions regarding the pandemic in December 1918.

1925: APHA creates Appraisal Form for Local Health Work.

1932: President Hoover speaks at APHA’s Annual Meeting.

1943: APHA sets qualification standards for health educators.

1948: United Nations establishes the World Health Organization with strong APHA support.

1950: APHA member Jonas Salk introduces Salk vaccine for polio.

1956: National Library of Medicine established.

1964: Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health published; President Johnson signs the Medicare/Medicaid Act.

1965: APHA publishes the first Public Health Law Manual.

1970: Congress establishes the Environmental Protection Agency; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

1972: APHA celebrates its 100th anniversary with 25,100 members.

1973: APHA cited in Supreme Court decision striking down most anti-abortion laws.

1982: APHA testifies at the first congressional hearings on AIDS.

1986: Former President Jimmy Carter speaks at Annual Meeting.

1994: Medicine and Public Health Initiative established by the APHA and American Medical Association.

1995: President Bill Clinton proclaims the first full week of April as National Public Health Week.

1997: APHA celebrates its 125th anniversary with 32,000 members; Presidential Citation presented to Nelson Mandela.  

1999: APHA builds its headquarters building in Washington, D.C.

2005: APHA relocates its Annual Meeting from New Orleans to Philadelphia following widespread devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.

2006:  APHA launches Get Ready campaign, an all hazards preparedness initiative.

2010: APHA helps win passage of the Affordable Care Act.

2011: APHA launches our blog, Public Health Newswire.

2013: APHA rolls out APHA Connect, an online member community.

2014: APHA surpasses 300,000 Twitter followers of @PublicHealth.

Memorable issues

1890s: Water pollution, milk sanitation, hygiene education, bacteriology, infectious diseases

1900-1910s: Infectious diseases, municipal health, water, standardization of health data

1920s: Local health departments, water, milk, training standards, personal hygiene, infectious disease, close-quartered living

1930s: Communicable diseases, sanitation, laboratories, statistics, food safety, housing, education, poverty, medical care, war

1940s: Professional standards, evaluations of schools of public health, infectious diseases, functions of local health departments

1950s: Push for federal agency solely focused on health and federal health funds for states, health legislation and advocacy, accreditation of public health schools, polio, pasteurization and food safety

1960s: Equality within public health work force, integration, the War on Poverty, birth control, public health training, environmental issues, consumer protection, human rights

1970s: War, global health, drug abuse, new technology, upgraded health facilities

1980s: AIDS, teen pregnancy, nuclear safety

1990s: Clinton Health Reform Plan, Gulf War impacts, tobacco, managed health care, vaccinations, E. coli, AIDS, school safety

2000s: Emergency preparedness, obesity, climate change, built environment

2010s: President Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law. Food safety, child nutrition, EPA regulations.