Disease outbreaks in schools have posed challenges for decades. During the 1952-53 school year, school and health officials took hard measures to fight a scalp ringworm outbreak in Grand Forks. On this date in 1952, the Associated Press reported that the epidemic was sweeping eastern North Dakota, but it appeared to be centered in Grand Forks among children ages 5 to 10. Ringworm is a fungal infection of the skin, and at the time was diagnosed using ultraviolet light.
By mid-November, 400 children in Grand Forks were reported to be infected. North Dakota’s Department of Health urged doctors to report all cases. The state health officer lamented the outbreak, calling it “a bit of a mess right now, and heaven help us if it moves into Bismarck.”
Health officials hoped a new ointment would help lick the epidemic, but in the meantime, several measures were taken. The Grand Forks Boy Scouts and YMCA shut down their programs. The city Park Board, Girl Scouts and YWCA banned infected children from participating in activities. Grand Forks barbers denied haircuts for a month for children 4 to 14. In Fargo, the Chamber of Commerce postponed its free movie jamboree.
Perhaps the most dramatic measure came during the summer of 1953 when Grand Forks health authorities required children 14 and younger to wear a cap. The boys’ caps were made from the legs of discarded cotton knit underwear, with a knob on top. Girls’ caps had ruffled edges.
The caps annoyed the children. They called the caps “fungus amongus caps” and “worm hats.” The children were checked monthly that summer for signs of ringworm. Those without the disease were given numbered, aluminum discs to wear on their necks like dog tags, which allowed them see movies, ride a bus, go swimming or go to church. But before swimming, uninfected children still had to be inspected. They also had to wear a rubber cap in the pool. Barbers that summer had to boil their tools in oil after cutting a child’s hair.
Some Lincoln Grade School students wrote a poem about the outbreak: “Fly little ring worm, fly away please. Fly little ring worm, don’t delay please. Ring worm you should be ashamed of, our little heads are being shaved off. Fungus is the thing that stung us. Fungus is the thing among us. Take your germs and fly away. Fly far away.”
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
Star Tribune. 1953, June 7, page 42
The Minneapolis Star, 1952, December 8, page 14
The Bismarck Tribune, 1952, November 18, page 7
The Bismarck Tribune, 1952, November 22, page 12
The Bismarck Tribune, 1952, November 11, page 2
The Bismarck Tribune, 1952, November 10, page 9
The Bismarck Tribune, 1952, September 18, page 9
The Bismarck Tribune, 1953, June 5, page 7