A color halftone printed postcard showing two small figures and a sweeping landscape of mountains, lakes and evergreen forest.

America’s National Parks: Preserved for Public Health

By Anne Rothfeld ~

The National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centennial on August 25, 2016.  From Maine to Hawaii, the breadth of NPS includes parks, seashores, monuments, Indian reservations, and historic sites.  America’s parks are filled with an abundance of natural wonders: glaciers and rivers, flora and fauna, animals and insects, canyons and sand dunes, stargazing and camping.

A bear leans on the window of a car as the driver looks on.
A bear “greets” a visitor in a national park.
Public Health Service at work in the national parks, 1960s.
National Library of Medicine #101547480

Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872, and later, through the Forest Reserve Act, Congress enacted the protection of “forest reserves.”  Over a period of sixteen years, three presidents added more than 150 million acres of forest and parkland, including Sequoia, Yosemite, Mt. Rainier, Crater Lake, and Glacier.  Beginning in 1901, Congress enacted multiple pieces of legislation to protect the country’s parks and monuments, the foundation of today’s NPS.  President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act of 1916, which created the NPS, to establish the conservation of nature and wildlife, and the preservation of historical landmarks and structures.  In 1935, the Historic Sites Act broadened NPS’s responsibilities of historic preservation, including presidential homes, Civil War battlefields and cemeteries, and the C&O Canal.  By the late twentieth-century, the scope of NPS expanded to include the Land and Water Conservation Fund, National Wilderness Preservation System, National Historic Preservation, National Trails System, and National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Excursions from urban areas to the national parks continue to offer public health benefits to Americans: fresh air and water, sunshine, and cooler temperatures in summer; visiting the parks helps restore physical and psychological health to those who languish.

A sign reading Lake Hospital Yellowstone Park Medical Service stands by concrete stepsleading though trees to a building in the distance.
Medical facility in Yellowstone National Park.
Public Health Service at work in the national parks, 1960s.
National Library of Medicine #101547480

In twentieth century Europe, “taking the cure,” a phrase meaning to visit a mineral spring or other natural area for health reasons, became highly fashionable.  In the United States, following the American Civil War, bathhouses and hotels near natural areas grew in number as hot springs became popular resort attractions.  The U.S. military had the same idea. Hot Springs, Arkansas, for example, where over forty springs rise from the mountain’s base, became the site of the first joint Army-Navy military hospital.  In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed a bill authorizing the hospital, which became the army’s primary facility for patients afflicted with arthritis and paralysis.  In 1921, Congress designated the Hot Springs area a national park.  Returning military personnel who suffered from severe wounds and/or loss of limbs in World War II took advantage of the hydro-therapy treatments available at the facility.

Two women sit on rocks surrounded by wooded hills.
Nurses hiking in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, Army and Navy General Hospital, 1940s
National Library of Medicine #101400633

During World War II, national parks offered nature’s healing to military patients, doctors, and nurses.  The Navy and Army departments built rehabilitation hospitals in Sequoia, Carlsbad Caverns, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite.  Under the direction of the Navy Department, the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite offered injured military personnel a place to convalesce.  Similarly, the Army built a rehabilitation camp in Denali National Park where nearby military personnel soldiers could fish, hike, skate, and relax.  Cabins built near these hospitals for the families of patients and staff contributed greatly to everyone’s morale.

A large stone building and some smaller wooden ones sit at the base of a high outcrop.
U.S. Naval Convalescent Hospital, Yosemite National Park, CA, 1944
National Library of Medicine #101403068

For many people today, the outdoors’ tranquility and expansiveness serves as a tonic to calm nerves and revive energy.  Areas for healthy recreational activities, observing nature, and learning about cultural heritage are preserved all over the country by the National Park Service and support the health and well-being of people today and for the future generations.

A color halftone printed postcard showing two small figures and a sweeping landscape of mountains, lakes and evergreen forest.
Postcard from Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, early twentieth-century
Courtesy of Abbott Historical Archives
National Library of Medicine #101460855

Each national park offers unique environments and educational opportunities. You can experience: biodiversity of shorelines and woodlands in Acadia (Maine); conservation of two thousand stone bridges in Utah’s Arches National Park; aurora borealis over Denali (Alaska); endangered marine life in the barrier islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore (Florida and Mississippi); and fossil formations in Zion (Utah). Natural wonders call to us to pause and renew our senses.

As we celebrate the NPS, we welcome you to share your experiences of a national park or historic landmark.

Anne Rothfeld, PhD, is a librarian and historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.


  1. I hadn’t considered our National Park system a component of Public Health previously, but it makes solid sense! It also compels me to try to safeguard the National Park system even more. Thank you for a new perspective for me.

  2. I’m so glad I stopped by today to read your post. Quite informative and enjoyable reading about our Parks, etc. Yosemite holds a special place in my heart, since it was there that my husband and I celebrated our first year of marriage in 1995. Of course, we stayed at the Ahwahnee Hotel. It was awesome! I brought out the photo album and journal I kept of our visit there and in the surrounding areas in California. I’m inspired to write a post about it. 🙂

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