Smallpox scare caused consternation in 1907

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

It is probable that there is not a single doctor in Wellington County who has had any experience dealing with smallpox.

Vaccination against the disease has been virtually universal in Ontario for decades.

But a hundred years ago smallpox was still a significant threat. In the early years of the 20th century there were several outbreaks in southern Ontario.

In 1907 Wellington County experienced one of those outbreaks. It was centred in parts of Maryborough and Peel Townships, and it prompted immediate action by civic authorities and doctors to keep it contained.

The Wellington County Health Unit was still decades in the future in 1907. Doctors relied on their own informal networks to keep tabs on contagious diseases, and the weekly press would sometimes publish stories, though the accuracy and completeness of those accounts, at times, left something to be desired. And sometimes, fearing that a smallpox story would chase away business from their town, they suppressed the stories altogether.

Early in January 1907, Dr. Robinson, a physician practicing in north Wellington, pieced together information he received from colleagues in the area. One of them in Drayton called him to confirm a diagnosis. There was no doubt – it was smallpox. Making some enquiries, Dr. Robinson learned that there were many other similar cases in the area.

Dr. Robinson at once realized that a serious outbreak was under way to the north. Even with the distances between people and the cold weather, the disease had spread significantly. Should it arrive in Guelph, which was a distinct possibility, the situation would quickly escalate to epidemic proportions.

Rushing to Guelph, he went to see Mayor Newsted. He asked whether the Royal City had a Board of Health. The one appointed in 1906 was still in office. Guelph’s Board of Health had been prominent between 1902 and 1905 in getting Guelph’s sewage system built, but had not been active for many months.

Leaving the mayor, Dr. Robinson went to see Capt. Clark, the chairman of Guelph’s Board of Health. Clark realized at once that action was needed, and called a meeting of the board for the same evening. They would consider establishing a clinic to administer free inoculations. Dr. Robinson decided to telegraph the provincial Board of Health to advise them of the situation.

After sending telegrams to other doctors in the north and getting their replies, Dr. Robinson estimated that there were at least 50 cases in Maryborough and Peel under the care of doctors. The bulk of them were concentrated in the area between Alma and Drayton. Likely there were many more. The only good news was that this appeared to be a very mild strain of smallpox.

The next morning the provincial inspector, Dr. Bell, stepped off a train at Guelph. After speaking to several officials and doctors in the city he continued north to Drayton. Dr. Robinson had told him that local authorities in Drayton and the townships did not seem especially concerned with the outbreak. Dr. Bell looked forward to lighting a fire under them.

Today smallpox is completely unknown. Due to diligent vaccination campaigns the World Health Organization declared in 1979 that it had been wiped out.

There were two major strains of the disease, which caused a rash on the face, hands and feet, along with infection in various organs and severe fevers.

The rash, in its last stages, produced discharges which could result in unattractive scars. There could also be damage to the heart, lungs and brain.

The severe form of smallpox produced fatalities in 20% or more of patients. The milder form resulted in the death of about 1% of victims, and permanent health consequences to many more.

The British physician Dr. Edward Jenner produced the first vaccine against smallpox in 1796. Over the next century vaccination saved millions of people, but only rarely were there systematic inoculation programs. Consequently, flare ups were common.

In late 1906, smallpox broke out in the Chatham area. Doctors identified 94 cases before vaccination and quarantine stopped its progress. It next appeared in the village of Oil Springs. Neglect and indifference by political officials and medical authorities there resulted in a severe epidemic. Doctors Bell and Robinson did not want that situation to repeat in Wellington County.

Before heading to Drayton, Dr. Bell spoke to reporters from the Guelph dailies, the Herald and the Mercury. He told them he had received a report of smallpox in the Stirton area of Maryborough two days earlier. He came at once to Guelph, he said, when Dr. Robinson advised him that there were many others in the area.

Most of the weeklies in Wellington picked up the story from one of the Guelph dailies – except the Drayton Advocate. A story in that paper the following week denied there was smallpox in Drayton, and “very little sickness of any kind,” though the editor admitted there was a case in Maryborough and about 20 more in Peel. The latter, he claimed, were all near Alma, and so mild that no one was bedridden.

When he arrived in Drayton, Dr. Bell stuck to his own agenda. He summoned the boards of health of Drayton, Maryborough and Peel, and afterward met with the councils of the three municipalities.

He reviewed with them the provincial legislation that required all residents of a municipality to be vaccinated if a case of smallpox was identified within its boundaries. The only exemptions were for those who had been vaccinated within the previous seven years and could prove it.

Posters had to be put up and a notice placed in a local newspaper. The public had seven days to get their shot. The speed was to cut off the disease in its incubation stage. Smallpox was most contagious before a victim displayed any symptoms.

The councils, fearing prosecution, agreed to a vaccination program. Dr. Bell was able to secure sufficient vaccine quickly, and the residents of the area flocked to doctors to receive their shots.

Strictly enforced quarantines, backed up with the mass inoculations, halted the outbreak in its tracks. Quite a few people complained about side effects from the shots – swollen arms, lethargy, and fever for a day or two. Some even grumbled that the vaccination was worse than the disease.

Though exact numbers are not known, it is likely that the 1907 smallpox outbreak did not infect more than 100 or so Wellington County residents.

The situation would certainly have been considerably worse had Dr. Robinson not taken quick and decisive action in the early stages when every day was critical.

There were no new cases after Feb. 1. In its Feb. 14 edition the Drayton Advocate carried a story on smallpox by a Dr. Seymour, identified as an American expert on smallpox. He stated that vaccination of children had once been routine, usually administered at the time of christening.

As a consequence, smallpox had almost disappeared in North America. But doctors and the public let their guard down. Since 1903 there had been a rapid and alarming return of the virus across North America.

Quarantines remained in effect on several houses until near the end of February, all in the Parker area of Peel. But that was the end of the outbreak in Wellington, and the last time that smallpox posed a serious threat in this area.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser  on Feb. 9, 2007.

Thorning Revisited