Dealing with ill health early in the 20th century was quite problematical, but Schenectady residents, rich and poor, had a few things going for them.
“The one thing I’ve learned from working on this book is that leadership matters,” said Dr. James Strosberg, who along with his brother Martin Strosberg has published a new book, “Schenectady’s Battle Against Contagious Disease: From Smallpox to COVID-19.”
“Schenectady and its leaders, its politicians, professors and doctors, have always kept us out in front of so many other cities across the country when it comes to public health. We’ve done a great job of taking care of our people.”
While the Strosbergs, both Niskayuna residents, provide readers with a number of examples of prominent Schenectadians doing the right thing, the most influential person in the city’s medical history may be Dr. Charles Duryee. A Democrat who was first elected to a two-year term as mayor in 1898, Duryee again became the city’s chief executive in 1909 and served another two-year term before once again making medicine his chief profession.
“He was a very intelligent guy, and it was Duryee who hosted a major conference of the state’s mayors in 1910 to discuss public health issues,” said Martin Strosberg. “He introduced a lot of innovation and became a real champion of public health. He stressed the necessity of a modern municipal health department.”
The Strosbergs are well equipped to collaborate on a book about Schenectady’s medical history. James Strosberg, who wrote a book on the history of the Schenectady County Medical Society in 2011, practiced rheumatology at Sunnyview Hospital for 34 years and is past Chief of Medicine at Ellis Hospital. He was also associate professor of clinical medicine (rheumatology) at Albany Medical College and is a member of the Medical Reserve Corp of the Schenectady County Public Health Services. A Troy native, he is a graduate of Union College and the University of Buffalo Medical School.
Also a Troy native and graduate of Union College, Martin Strosberg is professor emeritus at Union College and Clarkson University, and is the former director of the Union College and the Union Graduate College MBA Program in Healthcare Management. With masters degrees in public affairs and health administration from the University of California at Berkeley and his Ph.D from Syracuse, Strosberg has published extensively in the field of healthcare policy and management.
According to James Strosberg, the idea of working together with his brother to produce another medical history of Schenectady belonged to Martin.
“I call him my smarter, younger brother,” joked James Strosberg. “I had done a lot of research for my other book and written some articles for the Schenectady County Historical Society, so I created an outline and he wrote much of the book based on that. He did most of the writing, I did the proofreading. He’s the academic and knows policy, and I know the medical stuff.”
The book focuses on the 1918 pandemic and other earlier battles with cholera, as well as later problems with polio. It even covers the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the book was done in September of 2020, during the proofreading and editing process the brothers were able to include COVID information from as recently as December 2020.
The book was dedicated to the memory of Walter Robb, a former General Electric engineer/administrator who became the first Schenectady County resident to die due to COVID-19.
“He was the first victim in the area, and he really was a great guy, a pillar of the community,” Martin Strosberg said of Robb. “He was a very intelligent man, worked with the Schenectady Free Clinic and was on the board of the Clarkson and Union College Graduate colleges. I got to know him pretty well.”
According to James Strosberg, Robb was the perfect example of a prominent person in Schenectady with a civic-minded approach to medical issues.
“We had scientists like Walt Robb who cared about people, and we can go as far back as Eliphalet Nott at Union College back in 1832 helping to clean up the Erie Canal,” said James Strosberg. “And during the polio crisis, Schenectady had such a good reputation that the city was one of 80 sites throughout the country chosen by the March of Dimes to work with the vaccines. Throughout all of this time we had great leaders. Woodrow Wilson didn’t make one public statement about a pandemic that killed 650,000 Americans, but in Schenectady we had leaders like Duryee who really made a difference. And even today, Schenectady County had the highest rate of vaccination in the state. We had and have leaders we can be proud of.”
“Schenectady’s Battle Against Contagious Disease” is available at the Schenectady County Historical Society, the Open Door Bookstore and on line through Troy Bookmakers. All proceeds from the book are going to the historical society.
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