North Dakota has a long history of vaccinations, from smallpox to polio. Smallpox was a terrible, contagious disease that could leave people scarred and even blind. Isolation and vaccination were the tools used to fight it. When smallpox epidemics struck, local authorities often ordered vaccinations for everyone. For example, more than 2,000 people were vaccinated in three weeks in Grand Forks in 1899 to curb a smallpox scare.
Vaccinations eventually vanquished smallpox, which the World Health Organization declared eradicated in 1980. North Dakota’s last case of smallpox was in 1954.
During the 1918 flu pandemic, a Mayo Clinic physician developed a vaccine from inactive bacteria taken from flu patients’ lungs. At the time, bacteria were thought to cause the flu, but it's actually caused by a virus, so the vaccine was useless. But prior to that realization, health authorities around North Dakota deployed it. The Burleigh County Red Cross chapter established “anti-flu headquarters” in the Bismarck Federal Building for administering the shots free of charge. More than 300 people were vaccinated in two weeks.
Years later, polio became a dreaded disease, which could disable children and even cause death. A vaccine was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955, and an oral vaccine was later invented by Dr. Albert Sabin.
From 1 to 3 o’clock on this date in 1963, immunization volunteers held clinics to administer the oral polio vaccines around Cass County – in Arthur, Casselton, Fargo, Kindred, Page, and across the Red River in Clay County, Minnesota. The vaccine was taken with sugar lumps. Clinic organizers asked for a voluntary fee of 25 cents per sugar lump. The vaccine clinics drew many people – more than 1,400 people were vaccinated that afternoon at the Page school alone.
Around the same time, Stutsman County health officials held their first oral polio vaccine clinics and vaccinated nearly 16,000 people in one day in Jamestown and Medina. Registration coupons helped speed the vaccination traffic.
Decades earlier, the 1919 Legislature had banned compulsory school vaccination in North Dakota, but the 1975 Legislature enacted a school immunization law for polio, whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria, measles, mumps and rubella. The law came after decades of devastating epidemics among children.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
Little Falls Weekly Transcript. 1899, April 18. Page 2
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, December 12. Page 5
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, December 27. Page 5
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1919, February 13. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, March 3. Page 2
The Bismarck Tribune. 1963, March 18. Page 6
The Hope Pioneer. 1963, March 28. Page 1
The Hope Pioneer. 1963, April 4. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1975, June 16. Page 1
Eyler, J.M. (2010). The state of science, microbiology, and vaccines circa 1918. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2862332/
McDonough, S.L. (1989). The golden ounce: A century of public health in North Dakota. University Printing Center: Grand Forks, ND