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Bismarck Diphtheria Scare

 

Diphtheria was a wicked disease that killed many children in North Dakota’s early years. It is caused by bacteria that produce a deadly toxin in the nose, mouth and throat, forming a membrane from dead tissue that can suffocate a person. Diphtheria often sickened whole families, and children were especially vulnerable. In 1898, a Zeeland-area couple lost six of their eight children, in just 26 days. 

Also in 1898, a diphtheria epidemic struck Bismarck. It began with a three-year-old boy who died in February after three days’ illness. The wife and six children of North Dakota’s commissioner of agriculture and labor also fell ill – their home was fumigated after quarantine. Bismarck’s school and health officials closed schools for a week, and all homes with diphtheria cases were quarantined. Health authorities made “disinfectants and sterilizers” available to the public, and recommended people avoid gatherings. A North Dakota Agricultural College professor recommended an antitoxin for early treatment and prevention of diphtheria. He wrote to the Bismarck Tribune: "It is but a question of a few years when all infectious diseases will have yielded to the onward march of science."

The epidemic in Bismarck appeared to wane in March, but on this date in 1898, diphtheria was picking up again. Parents kept their children out of school, but by early May, the younger grades were filling up. At least six children, ages 6 months to 8 years old, had died in the Bismarck diphtheria scare. 

Other parts of North Dakota were also hit by diphtheria that spring, including families in LaMoure, Logan and McIntosh counties. A doctor from State Board of Health tried to treat and help prevent diphtheria and scarlet fever among Russian settlers, but many families denied having any illness in their homes, even though he found several sick people inside. The doctor said the settlers visited neighbors, held public gatherings and made no efforts at isolating sick. He wanted to temporarily suspend church services, but the sheriff wouldn’t oblige. He knew he would lose reelection if he closed churches.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Sources:

The Bismarck Tribune. 1898, February 7. Page 3

The Bismarck Tribune. 1898, February 8. Page 2

Bismarck Weekly Tribune. 1898, February 11. Page 7

The Bismarck Tribune. 1898, February 12. Page 3

The Bismarck Tribune. 1898, February 15. Page 3

The Bismarck Tribune. 1898, February 16. Page 3

The Bismarck Tribune. 1898, March 29. Page 3

The Bismarck Tribune. 1898, April 1. Page 8

The Bismarck Tribune. 1898, April 15. Page 8

The Bismarck Tribune. 1898, April 19. Page 3

The Bismarck Tribune. 1898, April 20. Page 2

The Bismarck Tribune. 1898, May 4. Page 3

cdc.gov/diphtheria/about/symptoms.html

McDonough, S.L. (1989). The golden ounce: A century of public health in North Dakota. University Printing Center: Grand Forks, ND

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