By: Carl Hallberg, Wyoming State Archives
Controlling infectious diseases has been a daunting task facing Wyoming physicians and public health officials since the state was first settled. Readers may find echoes of the current day in this account of the fearful ailment, smallpox. In later years, containing smallpox was a particularly troublesome endeavor for health officials, when it could be readily prevented beforehand through vaccination. However, educating the public on this preventive measure proved to be a significant public relations hurdle.
Smallpox is characterized by disfiguring blisters and pustules on the body, notably on the face and hands. The skin rash creates a burning sensation, and sores develop in the throat. Infected individuals become even more uncomfortable with the onset of severe chills, aches, pains, and sometimes convulsions, delusions, and nightmares. Many people survived with only pockmarks on their face. In more severe cases, smallpox can cause blindness or death.
Because it was so contagious, local physicians took all reports of smallpox very seriously. Infected individuals were immediately quarantined in their homes or the county pest house. A sign was placed at the site to warn away visitors and travelers. Both measures – quarantine and public notification – were “not a form of punishment,” noted Dr. John Hinds of Buffalo, “but a public duty for the protection of others.” Until the disease had run its course, doctors tried to make the patient as comfortable as possible. Also, clothes, furniture, and buildings at the place of infestation were fumigated and disinfected. Anyone in contact with the infected person was advised to be vaccinated.
Newspapers published notices about local outbreaks. When such occurred, readers were warned to avoid the respective homes and areas until public health officials said otherwise. Frequently, publishers reaffirmed the severe nature of the disease and urged readers to take proper precautions. Following a report of smallpox in Laramie in 1902, the Laramie Boomerang commented that there was no need for residents to be alarmed. The report also said, “but it is a good time to look up that old [vaccination] scar.”
Smallpox did not discriminate between large and small towns or urban and rural areas. Wherever an infected individual went, there was a high probability that others would contract the disease. In 1875 an infected man was found on a train to Rawlins. The railroad car was disconnected from the train. The man and his fellow passengers were quarantined outside of town.
A Campbell County health official determined that a Rozet teacher contracted smallpox from clothing worn by a visiting girls’ basketball team. The disease had been reported in the neighboring town. Smallpox outbreaks could disrupt communities. An outbreak in Savery in 1902 threatened to close the school for the entire winter.
Local physicians and health officials responded quickly to quell any fear of an epidemic. Beginning in 1902, compulsory quarantine and vaccination following the confirmation of the disease remained the standard medical practice. The State Board of health required a quarantine period of at least 30 days. If an individual died from the disease, burial was to take place within 36 hours. All people exposed to the disease were to be vaccinated and isolated for ten days, but the public imagination could run wild. In 1902 Rawlins, during the construction of the penitentiary, steamfitters immediately left the grounds on the first report of smallpox near the site. Only after being assured by a local doctor did they return to work. Following another outbreak in Rawlins in 1910, rumors spread that 79 people were ill when only about a dozen had the disease. The stories also said the disease was spreading rapidly and threatening to get out of control when, in fact, it was confined to 11 houses.
The only effective deterrent to smallpox was a vaccine developed by Edward Jenner, an English physician, in 1796. However, in Wyoming, the vaccination agent for the disease was not mandatory for the general populace. To the frustration of public health officials, many people refused it or did not take smallpox seriously. Dr. J.WS. Hunter of Gillette wryly suggested that by quarantining smallpox patients,” these [healthy] people will be anxious and willing to be vaccinated.”
In March 1919, the State Board of Health passed a rule requiring compulsory vaccination for school children against smallpox. It was a bold move. The board could “adopt such measures for the general vaccination of the inhabitants of any city, town, or county in the state” in order “to prevent the introduction or arrest the progress of smallpox.” Even so, the board questioned whether its policy could be applied to schools. Nonetheless, the order was sent, and in the fall of 1919, it was challenged in Natrona County District Court.
In Brokus vs. Wheeler, et al., the plaintiff argued that the rule was arbitrary because other children who had not been vaccinated were attending school. The school district countered that given the prevalence of the disease in the plaintiff’s residential area, the action was a prudent one. Judge Ralph Kimball concurred with the defendants and dismissed the case.
Shortly afterward, in Root vs. Wheeler et al., the plaintiff’s argument was much the same; the defendants could not prove that their action was based on a real public health need. Subsequently, Judge Kimball ruled that compulsory vaccination would not be mandated when the disease was not prevalent. For the State “Board of Health, the judgment was a tremendous setback. Dr. C.Y. Beard, secretary of the board, said that insufficient funds prevented the board from allowing a state health officer to be present throughout the entire trial. As a result of Root vs. Wheeler, only the legislature could prescribe vaccination as a prerequisite for school attendance. A mandatory immunization law was not passed until 1979.
In the meantime, health officials campaigned heartily for voluntary immunization. Their efforts had mixed results. Some years no cases were reported, and then suddenly cases flared up. For example, the State Board of Health reported 486 smallpox cases in 1921, 179 in 1922, and 20 in 1923. Epidemics occurred in 1929 and 1935 when 347 and 321 people were infected, respectively. Eventually, through perseverance, health officials won the battle, and the majority of the population was vaccinated. By 1930, the number of smallpox cases began to drop dramatically. The last report of the disease in Wyoming was in 1953. Several years later, since no cases were being reported, the Department of Health decided not to keep statistics on smallpox anymore. By then, the disease was non-existent in the United States.
In 1971 the smallpox immunization for children was discontinued. The disease was declared eradicated worldwide in 1980.
Board of Health Annual Reports
Wyoming Newspapers from Newspapers.wyo.gov
1901 Session Laws