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Smallpox Vaccinations


To stop an epidemic of smallpox in 1899, the Grand Forks Board of Health ordered all schoolchildren to be vaccinated at the city’s expense and ordered all city residents to get vaccinated, too. More than 2,000 people were immunized in three weeks, including 550 schoolchildren.

On this date in 1878, a doctor from St. Paul, Minnesota, left for Fisher’s Landing, a small town on the Red Lake River upstream from Grand Forks. Railroad officials had summoned him due to a smallpox scare gripping the town. The town’s daily railroad traffic “afforded a serious opportunity for the spread of any contagious disease.” When the doctor arrived, he found the town “in a state of intense excitement.” Train passengers were huddled on the riverbank, afraid to enter stores, and the townsfolk were “equally scared.” 

The doctor began to vaccinate people, using “humanized crusts dissolved in glycerine and water.” He vaccinated between 300 and 400 people. He reported: “The vaccinations were very successful, and with no bad results. The usual prejudice was found, but the scare generally overcame it.”

The doctor traced the outbreak to a woman who died from smallpox after returning to Fisher’s Landing from Winnipeg.  Physicians who tended her thought it was chickenpox. Only a few people fell ill from contact with the woman, including a telegraph operator who slept in a neighboring room. He was quarantined in a house two miles out of town with supplies and medical care. He recovered.

Weeks later, after the doctor returned to St. Paul, he learned of a railroad brakeman in Crookston who died. The doctor subsequently vaccinated many railroad employees who worked on that line. 

That same year of 1878, Grand Forks’ first physician, Dr. George Hacston, died in a smallpox outbreak that killed at least eight people, including a man and his two small daughters, just days apart. Doctors vaccinated more than 700 people to stop that epidemic. 

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


Star Tribune. 1878, June 19. Page 1

Fox Lake Representative. 1878, December 6. Page 4

Williston Graphic. 1899, March 31. Page 1

Little Falls Weekly Transcript, 1899, April 18, Page 2

Lunseth, J.H. (1992). The smallpox epidemic and its effects on the Tweten and Hofto families: 1878-1879.

Grand Forks Centennial Corporation. (1974). They came to stay: Grand Forks, North Dakota centennial 1874-1974. Jet Printing Inc.: Grand Forks, ND

Minnesota State Board of Health. (1878). Sixth annual report of the state board of health of Minnesota. Johnson, Smith, & Harrison: Minneapolis, MN. Pages 19-21



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