The Usphs And Martin Wilbert


In 1912, when the Hague Convention spurred federal agitation for a national antinarcotic law, the United States Public Health Service looked into state laws regarding poisons and habit-forming drugs. The PHS had little influence within the federal government, but it was occasionally called upon to assist in a modest way centers of power such as the State Department; it was watched by the health professions lest it depart from its traditional role of combating communicable disease, treating merchant seamen, and gathering and disseminating information.

With impetus gained from the national movement to establish a department of health with cabinet rank, the Public Health Service gradually expanded. From the Marine Hospital Service founded in 1798 it became in 1902 the Marine Hospital and Public Health Service, and in 1912 the Public Health Service. The Hygienic Laboratory, established in the late nineteenth century in New York City to perform some rudimentary scientific procedures, also grew and by 1904 was housed in its own building in Washington. Eventually the Hygienic Laboratory became the National Institutes of Health. Martin I. Wilbert, a pharmacist from Philadelphia, was chosen to be a technical assistant in the new laboratory’s Division of Pharmacology, at that time the highest professional role a pharmacist had achieved in the federal service.Wilbert performed well in the intricate development of the federal antinarcotic laws. Like other outstanding investigators of the PHS, his valuable papers were too often confined to the technical Public Health Reports. What influence Wilbert enjoyed was not due to his rank in the Public Health Service; in Philadelphia his scientific work had established the pharmacy of the German (now Lankenau) Hospital as a model for the health profession. His devotion to raising the standards of pharmacy led to enormous work with the American Pharmaceutical Association, its local branch, and brought him in contact with the medical profession. An original member of the AMA’s Council on Chemistry and Pharmacy (1905), he served on it until his early death in 1917. His obvious disinterest in amassing wealth would have been established by his accepting a post with the PHS, if by nothing else. Wilbert had the reputation of being thorough, fair, and a constructive critic. When the National Drug Trades Conference met in Washington, D.C., in 1913, he was asked to represent the American Medical Association in planning the antinarcotic law. Wilbert was the PHS expert in the field.

In a 1912 compilation of state laws on habit-forming drugs, Wilbert declared,

There are few if any subjects regarding which legislation is in a more chaotic condition than the laws designed to minimize the drug-habit evil … In many of the states anti-narcotic laws are so comprehensive that practically every retail druggist would be subject to fine or imprisonment were an attempt made to enforce the legislation ostensibly in force, while in other states the laws are so burdened with exceptions and provisos as practically to nullify every effort to control the traffic in narcotic drugs.

Wilbert’s description of the state laws reflected a common belief that local legislation had failed to halt the progress of habit-forming drugs in the United States. His reports left no question that these drugs represented a social danger and required further action, but he shied away from dramatic exaggeration.

Wilbert and Hamilton Wright present a striking contrast. Wright fought for narcotic control on a grand scale, fending off devious international conspiracies and offending almost everyone he dealt with. Wilbert, an unassuming man with a rather quavering voice, nicknamed “Weepy Wilbert” by his colleagues and devoted to finding the most rational solution to a difficult problem, refused melodrama and aggressive actions. His long hours with committees exhibited “unlimited patience.” Wilbert was trusted; Wright was resented. Almost exact contemporaries, they died within a few months of each other, both relatively young and still in the midst of the narcotic control controversy. This period of state and local statute revision and treatment experimentation (1910-20) can be clarified by some examples from various places and by a close examination of the approaches tried in New York State.