Louis Brownlow: Street Level Bureaucrat and Plague Warrior

By Dr. Michael Popejoy


Readers who did their doctorates in public administration know of Louis Brownlow, primarily from the Brownlow Commission and his other contributions to public administration. I suppose a very few of us know him as a street level bureaucrat and plague warrior. His actions were absolutely heroic.

Yet, these accomplishments are silent to all of us who have studied him because many aspects of the most deadly plague of the 20th century never made it to press and there is little written into history. The majority do not know of Brownlow as a hero of the plague year. He stepped up when others were asleep at the switch.

Where did I get this information? Well, I recently discovered the joy of going to estate sales to rummage through dead people’s stuff. I have to thank my wife for turning me on to this great joy since she has been a great snoop into dead people’s stuff for years; indeed, our house is decorated in the stuff of the dead. I never saw the benefit of it until I realized that dead people also have books—really old books; really valuable old books.

So, now I am a searcher of books of the dead. Further, books of the dead are really cheap. However, sometimes gold can be struck if you’re lucky; such as a 1961 book on the 1918 Spanish flu plague with a chapter on Louis Brownlow. Then wow, suddenly, we have a link between public administration history and public health history.

My academic interests are public administration (including history) and public health (including the history of microbes). So, I found a book published in 1961 on the 1918 plague and imagine my surprise when I found out the role of Louis Brownlow. That is where public administration history and public health history slam together in a pretty remarkable story surrounding Brownlow.

Certainly, the events offer us at least one example of the critical importance of public health and public administration working together in the face of a pandemic disease emergency threatening society. Then to my surprise, a name I had not heard since my doctoral training years shows up not as a sidebar player but as the main actor in the play of the 20th century. I wonder today why we know so much about Brownlow through his Commission work; but, we know virtually nothing of his work in Washington, D.C. as the flu bore down on the District.

Brownlow watched the flu “hot zone” burn its way through the populated areas on a collision course like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at full gallop heading to Washington, D.C. One problem he identified on his own even though he was not a trained epidemiologist is that the already overcrowded D.C. area – with a shortage of doctors and nurses, both a consequence of WWI raging in Europe – set up conditions ripe for disease vector transmission. The bug was on its way. Brownlow knew trouble was coming.

Brownlow, one of the three District commissioners who presided over the city in lieu of a mayor or city manager, knew that the flu had already arrived. He stayed in touch with Dr. William C. Fowler, his health officer, who confirmed what he already suspected. At George Washington University Medical Center, there were 40 cases; at Sibley Hospital there were already 20cases. He also knew of more cases of doctors and nurses who were also sick in bed. Brownlow called up the coroner, Dr. R. Ramsay Newitt.

“Ramsay,” he said, “be prepared for the worse. We need more body bags.”

Brownlow then shifted into street level bureaucrat mode. He ordered shifts in federal offices, staggered and limited store hours, except those selling food and drugs, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. He also closed schools, theaters and saloons and forbade public gatherings.

Brownlow then called President Wilson’s mercurial son-in-law Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo to enforce these new measures. Brownlow also ordered that nursing centers be set up in vacant school buildings and a vacant store converted into an emergency hospital. He placed Dr. James P. Leake, a leading epidemiologist with the United States Public Health Service, in charge. He also converted a former Western Union office into a Red Cross recruiting and training station.

Brownlow enlisted 45 society leaders and commandeered a garage and cranked into operation a Motor Ambulance Corps. The members slept in cots that lined the walls ramping up for 24-hour duty. Wealthy women donated their limos as ambulances and their drivers as well. Many died during the crisis.

But thanks to Brownlow, Washington was mobilized and taking the threat seriously. Many people died, but many more survived the raging pandemic. Brownlow set an example for direct government decision making and action in the face of a crisis.

Of course, to Woodrow Wilson, later a victim of the flu during his visit to France trying to end WWI, he suffered the greatest personal tragedy of Brownlow’s decisions to padlock places of entertainment, including theatres and bars. Wilson’s principal diversion had been vaudeville, and at least one evening a week, he was known to stroll across the street in his pince-nez to B.F. Keith’s Theatre for the shows.



One thought on “Louis Brownlow: Street Level Bureaucrat and Plague Warrior

  1. I wonder if we could respond is such a quick thorough, and coordinated way today. It’s an amazing story of knowing the variables in play, and being able to move the right pieces. Contrasted against some of the recent public responses, it makes you wonder. Good post.


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