So our President-elect has announced plans to appoint someone who opposes vaccinations to head a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity. “Anti-vaxxers,” as they’re called these days, have been trying to gain momentum for their view that vaccinating children is dangerous.
The medical profession, of course, takes a very dim view of this. Here in the Fox River Valley of Illinois, at least one large clinic group—and maybe all of them for all I know—have told parents that if they refuse vaccinations they can find another clinic to take their children to.
It wasn’t so long ago that vaccines were seen as lifesavers, medical miracles that people simply didn’t refuse. That’s because vaccinations eliminated a variety of childhood killers like polio and other communicative diseases like measles and smallpox that annually killed thousands of people.
Back in the first half of the 19th Century, as if they didn’t have enough to worry about—wild animals, starvation—Kendall County’s pioneers also had to worry about disease. A lot. When they wrote in a letter to a friend or relative that they were in good health it wasn’t a meaningless phrase. Because during the pioneer era, and right up through World War II, getting sick didn’t just put a crimp in peoples’ styles; it all too often killed them.
A dismayingly large number of really serious epidemics regularly broke out in those days. And rich or poor, disease killed far more than warfare or any other cause. Not that serious illness still isn’t a problem, of course. Each year, as many as 56,000 U.S. residents die of the flu. But in times past, that many might die within a couple weeks from Asiatic cholera, typhoid, or smallpox.
Of the three, smallpox was the most regular, and most certain and feared, killer.
Although known to be at least 3,000 years old, smallpox wasn’t mentioned in Europe until the 6th Century. During the early Middle Ages Arabs were the premier medical researchers and practitioners in the world. Although some might find it surprising, the first scientific description of smallpox distinguishing it from its cousin, measles, was made by Abu-Bakr Muhammed ibn-Zakariya’al-Razi, chief physician at a Baghdad hospital—in 900 A.D. He established the diagnosis criteria for the disease that would be used until the 1700s.
From the 6th Century on, frequent European smallpox epidemics killed millions. Those same epidemics, however, provided a growing tolerance and even immunity to the disease that slowly forced the death rate down to between 10 and 30 percent of those infected. Nevertheless, during the 18th Century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 60 million Europeans.
Even royalty was not immune to the ravages of the pox. The earliest-known royal smallpox victim was the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V who died of it in 1160 B.C. Other, more modern, monarchs who succumbed included William II of Orange in 1650, Queen Mary II of England in 1694, Czar Peter II of Russia in 1730, Louis XV of France in 1774, and Maria Theresa of Austria in 1780.
Early European explorers brought Old World diseases to North America with them, and they proved more deadly than gunpowder weapons. The combination of smallpox and measles killed upwards of 90 percent of the Native American population in some areas, along with smaller numbers of European colonists.
Then came the 18th Century and some true medical progress. Greek physician Emanuel Timoni, living in Constantinople in 1713, described how smallpox might be prevented by immunization using some of the liquid from a smallpox sore and rubbing it into a small scratch on a healthy person’s skin. While the inoculation caused a mild case of the pox, 98 percent survived. In 1718, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British minister to Constantinople, described inoculations she personally witnessed. During a 1721 smallpox epidemic in London, Lady Montagu had her five year-old daughter inoculated. The child developed a mild case, but recovered almost immediately. The exploit persuaded King George I to have two of his grandchildren inoculated—after having the process tested on 11 children from a charity school and a half-dozen prisoners at Newgate Gaol. A king couldn’t be too venturesome with this medical technology stuff, after all, who’d miss a few charity kids anyway?
Although inoculation was known, and known to work, the pox still caused untold deaths throughout the world. In 1776, smallpox struck the Continental Army around Boston, and 5,500 of the 10,000 man force come down with the disease. As a result, General George Washington ordered his entire army inoculated against the pox in 1777. British soldiers, many of whom had been exposed as children, suffered far less mortality.
Then in 1796, Edward Jenner invented his famed method of inoculating patients with cowpox vaccine, leading to protection from smallpox with few, if any side effects. Even so, epidemics continued to strike. In 1837, a smallpox outbreak along the upper Missouri River killed 15,000 Native Americans, virtually wiping out the Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan tribes.
Here in the Fox Valley, settlers arrived starting in the late 1820s, and smallpox wasn’t far behind. In 1845 an epidemic struck Oswego. James Sheldon Barber, writing back home to his parents in Smyrna, N.Y. from Lockport on April 27, reported: “I have been waiting to go to Oswego and partly on account of the small pox. I was vaccinated one week ago last Monday. It worked tolerably well & I have got over it & now I feel perfectly safe. I was at Oswego one week ago today & found the folks all well. Hawley’s folks have all had the small pox but Honer, Harriet & Jabez had the hardest of them all. Harriet’s face is scarred some but she says it is not so bad as it has been & I think She will get over it entirely in a short time.”
Smallpox made careers other than Jenner’s, too. In 1878, when a deadly smallpox epidemic hit Deadwood, S.D., 26 year-old Martha Jane Canary nursed patients, rendering services that eventually made her the legendary “Calamity Jane.”
On June 16, 1881, the Kendall County Record laconically reported: “Five cases of small-pox in Joliet.” And on Dec. 29 of the same year, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that a former Oswego resident had died due to the sickness: “From the daily papers we learned that Mrs. John Hinchman of Chicago has lately died from small pox and in a condition uncommonly sad.” In late January of 1882, Record Editor John Marshall published the alarming news that “Small-pox is raging in Braidwood, Will county.”
In June, 1884, a major smallpox epidemic broke out in downtown Yorkville. Public officials and the community’s doctors battled it with quarantines and vaccinations, and it quickly burned itself out.
One of the last local smallpox scares—as opposed to an actual epidemic—took place in January 1891. According to the Record, a woman traveling to Chicago by rail through Oswego was found to have a rash some thought to be small pox. A small community panic ensued, with calls for the school to be closed, a community-wide quarantine, suspension of mail service, social gatherings canceled and attendance at church services curtailed. But within a day or so, the woman’s problem was found to be a simple rash and “The scare ceased almost as fast as it began,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported.
Another local outbreak of smallpox was reported in the May 22, 1918 Record, where the correspondent wrote: “Oswego has had and is having the prevailing epidemic, one more being added when last week Miss Mary Goodendorf was put under quarantine with smallpox. There are now five cases in that and the George Denman family.” A year later, in May 1919, both of Isaac Tripp’s sons, Norval and Kenneth, came down with smallpox. Both recovered after a fairly long convalescence.
The last case of smallpox in Kendall County I’ve been able to find involved Oswego resident O.L. Knight, who made a trip to St. Louis on business in April 1929, where he was exposed to smallpox, bringing it home with him. Both he and his wife—who worked at the Oswego telephone exchange—were quarantined for a month. Mrs. Knight survived without catching the pox from her husband and Mr. Knight fully recovered.
The last recorded case of smallpox was reported in Somalia in October 1977, and it is officially considered an eradicated disease. But fears generated by biological warfare rumors, not to mention the new reluctance to vaccinate are making some wonder what would happen if smallpox was ever unleashed on the world again.