At the order of Gov. J.B. Pritzger, Illinois remains somewhat hunkered down these days as the medical profession and biologists try to figure out how to handle the severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2—shortened to COVID-19—pandemic sweeping the world.
Here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley, towns up and down the river issued shelter in place orders last spring, businesses (except for those deemed essential) were closed along with most governmental agencies including schools, park districts, museums, and libraries, and the only reason most people left home was to get groceries or visit the drug store. Things have begun to loosen up a bit, but as they’ve done so, cases have started on an upward trend line once again, making the area’s financial recovery problematical in the near future.
Serious disease outbreaks were fairly common around these parts back during the settlement era, a situation that lasted well into the 20th Century. In the early days, nobody knew what caused the periodic outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, typhoid, typhus, diphtheria, or the ever-present ague—which we know today as malaria.
But when it came to actually killing our pioneer ancestors, the big three diseases were cholera, typhoid, and smallpox.
Illinois’ earliest cholera outbreak happened in 1832 as the U.S. Army responded to the Black Hawk War. Troops brought west on the Great Lakes had picked up the disease along the way, and were dying even as they arrived. When Gen. Winfield Scott arrived at Chicago’s Fort Dearborn with his infected soldiers, most settlers who had fled to the fort for protection quickly left for their homes, figuring while the Indians might kill them, the cholera surely would. Legend has it that as Scott’s small army marched northwest to the Rock River country in western Illinois and southern Wisconsin, and as additional soldiers died, they were buried along the route with a cannon ball used as a marker for each dead soldier, thus, supposedly, the origin of today’s Cannonball Trail.
But of the three, smallpox was the most feared, and most certain, killer during that era. Thought to be eradicated in the 1970s, smallpox made a comeback of sorts back in the early 2000s, with the spread of rumors it was being cultured for biological warfare.
Although known to be at least 3,000 years old, smallpox wasn’t mentioned in Europe until the 6th Century. Oddly enough, given the current unpleasantness between ourselves and the Islamic countries, 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 epidemics killed millions. Those same epidemics, however, provided a growing tolerance to the disease that allowed the death rate to decline to between 10 and 30 percent of those infected. Even so, the disease remained deadly. During the 18th Century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 60 million Europeans.
Even royalty suffered 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, and they proved extra deadly to the New World’s Native People. 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 settlers. When the Pilgrims arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620, they found what later became Massachusetts strangely uninhabited, although the empty villages and fields of Native People were scattered all over the region, their residents having been killed during a recent smallpox epidemic, probably inadvertently spread by Portuguese fishermen.
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 and were thereafter immune.
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 first. Couldn’t be too careful, you know.
Although inoculation was known, 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 came down with the disease. In 1777, General George Washington, himself a smallpox survivor, ordered his entire army inoculated against the pox. Although Congress was opposed to the relatively new treatment (Washington’s home state of Virginia outlawed smallpox inoculations), Washington insisted—no anti-vaxxers allowed. As a result, Washington’s Continentals were spared the smallpox that was ravaging the 13 Colonies. When infection rates dropped from 20 percent to 1 percent, even Congress couldn’t ignore it. That led to one of the nation’s first public health laws legalizing smallpox vaccinations. Previously, some colonies (including Washington’s own Virginia) had prohibited vaccination under penalty of law.
British soldiers, most of whom had been exposed to the pox as children, suffered far less mortality than their American cousins during the war.
Then in 1796, English scientist and doctor 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, particularly hitting Native People the hardest. In 1837, a smallpox outbreak along the Missouri River, probably carried by fur traders, killed 15,000 Indians, virtually wiping out the Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan tribes.
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 during the disastrous outbreak that eventually made her the legendary “Calamity Jane.”
Here in the Fox Valley, an 1845 epidemic struck Oswego. James Sheldon Barber, writing to his parents in Smyrna, N.Y. from Lockport on April 27 of that year, 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.”
Barber finally got to Oswego to visit the friends with which he’d traveled from Smyrna to Oswego back in 1843 and was happy to find them all alive, if somewhat scarred: “I 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.”
One of the last local smallpox scares was in January of 1891. According to the Kendall County Record, a woman traveling by rail to Chicago through Oswego was found to have a rash some thought to be smallpox. A community panic ensued, with calls for the school to be closed, a community-wide quarantine established, suspension of mail service, social gatherings canceled and attendance at church services curtailed (does this sound familiar?). But within a day or so, it was found the woman had a simple rash and “The scare ceased almost as fast as it began,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported.
The last recorded case of smallpox was reported in Somalia in October 1977, and it is officially considered an eradicated disease.
Now, we’re dealing with a new disease that seems every bit as deadly as smallpox for those who contract it. The strange thing, though, is that today we know what a virus is, and even what the microscopic COVID-19 virus looks like. We just don’t know—at the present time—how to manufacture a vaccine to inoculate people against it.
In that respect, it’s at least a little bit like those days of long ago when diseases struck for no apparent reason, killed dozens, hundreds, or thousands, and then disappeared as quickly as they came. At least today, we have reason to believe help is on the way as the scientific community is working hard to come up with a vaccine for those not stricken and effective treatments for those who have contracted COVID-19.