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Smallpox Outbreak


During the winter and spring of 1901, an outbreak of smallpox struck the Midwest. In North Dakota, numerous patients in early February were discovered to have one thing in common — they had worked in the woods of northern Minnesota where they became infected.

Some North Dakotans didn't buy it; they accused physicians of trying to profit from the situation by using scare tactics. Other skeptics claimed the disease was not smallpox — it was chicken pox.

On February 26, The Bismarck Tribune reported, "The work of the legislature will be resumed today. The attempted small pox scare did not frighten away any of the members, although the startling misrepresentation of conditions in the city by a valley paper a day or so ago occasioned considerable comment and some agitation where the real situation was not known."

The disease was indeed real, however. In early March, one report read: "Southern Iowa is overrun with smallpox, nearly every town having from fifty to two hundred cases. The disease is malignant, and many deaths have occurred." By the end of May, hundreds of confirmed cases were reported in North Dakota towns, including Pingree, Bismarck, Valley City, Lidgerwood, Minnewaukan, Jamestown, Fargo, Grafton and Mandan.

Those who caught the disease either died quickly or not at all. Most were usually sick for two weeks, but were believed to be contagious for several weeks beyond their recovery, and patients and their families were quarantined to their homes for the duration.

Throughout March, April and May tensions remained high. On one occasion, a Casselton man named Art Smith passed a stranger on a country road and asked him if he needed a lift. The man, whose name was Art Brown, declined, saying he might have smallpox. Smith wasted no time in driving into town to warn authorities, and they stopped Brown on the outskirts of Casselton.

Brown had been working on the Dalrymple farm near Arthur when he got sick. Realizing his potential to spread the disease, he started for town on foot. The police retrieved Dr. Rowe, who determined that yes, Brown had all the symptoms of smallpox. Brown offered to walk all the way to Fargo for medical help, but that evening the County Board of Health arranged transportation for him.

It's unknown what became of the thoughtful farm hand, but it appears his precautions paid off. Nobody on the Dalrymple Farm appeared to be infected, but - just in case - all were vaccinated the following day.

Dakota Datebook by Merry Helm

Source: The Bismarck Tribune. 1901: 2 Feb; 6 Feb; 7 Feb; 23 Feb; 26 Feb; 6 Mar; 11 Mar; 12 Mar; 18 Mar; 23 Mar; 15 Apr; 16 Apr; 19 Apr; 2 May; 7 May; 8 May; 28 May; 29 May.