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School Vaccination Rule


Epidemics of diphtheria, smallpox, scarlet fever and other diseases struck schools, churches and families throughout North Dakota more than a century ago. Children were especially vulnerable, and siblings often died within days of each other. After a local couple buried all three of their children, the Emmons County Record urged the 1899 Legislature to do something to stamp out the diseases, writing: “Surely heroic measures ought to be taken to save the precious lives of our children.” The following spring, the State Board of Health adopted a rule that no pupil could enter any public school without proof of vaccination. 

Times were desperate. Up against an emerging smallpox outbreak, the Grand Forks Board of Health established a quarantine house, ordered all school children to be vaccinated at the city’s expense and ordered all city residents to be vaccinated, too. More than 2,000 people were vaccinated in three weeks. At the same time, a case of smallpox at Glasgow, Montana, led train crews there and in Williston to quarantine. According to newspaper reports, residents were “thoroughly scared.”

Around this time in 1899, children were returning to school, and their parents were required to provide a vaccination certificate. When a father in Grafton refused to vaccinate his daughter, the school board denied her admittance, saying it would be negligence if it failed to enforce the vaccination rule. The father, who opposed vaccination, sued to have his daughter admitted. The man won when the judge ruled that his daughter must be allowed in school whether vaccinated or not.

The case wasn’t appealed, but the decision was seen as worrisome. With soldiers returning home from the Philippines, newspapers and school officials advocated compliance with the vaccination rule, “even if in some cases inconvenient or distasteful.”

Dickinson’s principal of schools said, “In order to prevent the spread of smallpox, we owe it not only to ourselves but to the public as well, the duty of taking the necessary precautions.”

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

The Bottineau Courant, 1899, April 1, page 8
The Bismarck Tribune, 1899, August 7, page 3
Little Falls Weekly Transcript, 1899, April 18, page 2
The Bismarck Tribune, 1899, April 21, page 5
Courier Democrat, 1899, August 3, page 5
The Cooperstown Courier, 1899, October 5, page 5
Williston Graphic, 1899, March 31, page 1
The Dickinson Press, 1899, June 10, page 3
Bismarck Weekly Tribune, 1899, September 29, page 4
Jamestown Weekly Alert, 1899, September 21, page 1
Courier Democrat, 1899, June 22, page 4
Emmons County Record, 1898, May 6, page 1
The Dickinson Press, 1899, September 2, page 2
July 1, 2020, email communication with North Dakota Supreme Court Clerk Petra Mandigo Hulm

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