Vaccinating for Smallpox a Hundred Years Ago

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Friday, August 25, 1911: Jimmie the cub was vaccinated this morning and looked so very much in pain, but still nervous during the process. It has been so rainy all day and is raining. I guess unless it has stopped awhile ago. My everyday shoes, like the Wonderful One Hoss Shay seemed to have gone to pieces all at once, so I have cast them aside for a better pair, but will soon follow their predecessors.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Grandma’s 5-year-old brother Jimmie would begin school in September, so he needed to get a smallpox vaccination.

I’m not sure exactly what the laws were in Pennsylvania in 1911, but in 1905 a US Supreme Court decision (Jacobson vs. Massachusetts) upheld the right of a state to require the smallpox vaccination.

Fewer people got smallpox in 1911 than in previous generations because vaccination programs were becoming well established—but there still were regular outbreaks across the U.S.

I was amazed to discover that people were actually catching smallpox in central Pennsylvania in 1911.

I’m again sharing an article Milton Evening Standard that I first posted on January 21 because it is so relevant to this entry.

In January 1911 there were smallpox outbreaks in two nearby towns (Washingtonville and Mausdale) located about 15 miles east of the Muffly farm.

Milton Evening Standard, January 21, 1911


6 Responses

  1. Thanks, it is always good to have a reminder of the changes that we take for granted, but were an every day haunt to our ancestors.

  2. Smallpox, a highly contagious disease, is unique only to humans. The smallpox virus is caused by two virus variants called Variola major and Variola minor. Variola major is the more deadly form of the virus; it usually has a mortality rte of 20-40 percent of those that are infected with the virus. Variola minor on the other hand is much less severe and only kills 1% of its victims. Neither of the Variola’s are bugs that you want to get. Avoid them at all costs!..

  3. Wow, thanks for sharing this one and it was only 15 miles from Helena’s farm? I love how you track down newspaper reports relevant to the time frame!

  4. Many diseases of the past are returning, thanks to urban myths like the one about vaccinations causing autism. Measles, rubella, etc. Even polio is becoming more prevalent – Pakistan mainly, I heard. Then there’s a resurgence of antibiotic-resistant bugs like MRSA. Society has taken protection for granted for so long that we are now headed for conditions that, I predict, will shock a lot of people.

    In the 19th century, before the discovery of microbiota, a.k.a. germs, the average life span in Europe was 35 and the principal killer was TB, also called “consumption”. For an excellent description of what it was like to live in those times I recommend Thomas Goetz’s book, The Remedy.

    • It’s scary how some of these diseases are again becoming more prevalent. The Remedy sounds good. I’ve added it to my “to read” list.

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