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Stepping on a Nail


Stepping on a rusty nail was one of the worst fears of children raised on farms. A puncture wound in the foot brought not only pain, it also brought germs from the soil into the bloodstream. Adults also feared stepping on a nail because of the danger of contracting tetanus, known in the past as the dreaded lockjaw.

On this date in 1909, the Grand Forks Herald published a story about Charles Doyon seeking help after stepping on a plank and driving a rusty nail “far into his foot.” Charles Doyon, founded the town of Doyon, located just east of Devils Lake. Immediately after his injury, he boarded “train number 5” to seek treatment at General Hospital in Devils Lake, “to avoid any danger of blood poisoning or lockjaw.”

Doyon was 38 at the time, husband to his wife Alice, and father of two children, Mary and Ransom. He was a banker, merchant, and lumber dealer. Fortunately, he recovered from his injury and avoided contracting lockjaw.

Others in the time prior to the introduction of wide-scale tetanus vaccinations were not so fortunate. In Langdon, young Francis O’Connor, a boy 12 years old, stepped on a nail in 1921, getting a “slight wound” that seemed to be quickly healed, and his parents “thought no more of it” until the boy “complained of a sore throat,” which turned into the powerful neck cramps of lockjaw. “Death resulted in a remarkably short time.”

A girl from Kindred, Leora Everets, 12 years old, died in a Fargo hospital in 1919 from lockjaw, also as a “result of stepping on a rusty nail.”

The main treatment was to disinfect the puncture wound immediately. It was generally believed that rusty nails caused the most lockjaw deaths, but that was true if the nail was dirty as well as rusty.

Researchers learned that tetanus bacteria spores lived in the soil. Once in the blood, the bacteria produce poisons that block nerve signals to the muscles, starting with neck muscles, which locked up the jaw. Then mouth muscles pulled the lips into a grimace, a combination smile and snarl which preceded severe chest muscle contractions, cutting off breath, causing the victim’s death.

It was during World War I that tetanus immunizations finally brought this health scourge under control. But beware of rusty nails, nonetheless.

Today’s Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Charlie Doyon Hurt,” Grand Forks Herald, July 31, 1909; “Charles Doyon, of Doyon,” Grand Forks Herald, August 1, 1909; U.S. Census Bureau, Federal Census 1910, “Charles Doyon,” Ramsey County, ND.

“Langdon Child Dies From Tetanus Caused By Stepping On A Nail,” Grand Forks Herald, August 19, 1921, p. 3.

“Cass County Girl Dies of Lockjaw,” Grand Forks Herald, September 14, 1919, p. 2.

“Nail In Foot Is Cause Of Death,” Grand Forks Herald, July 26, 1908, p. 8.

“Rusty Nail Is Cause Of Injury,” Grand Forks Herald, August 26, 1916, p. 2.

“Stepped Heavily,” Grand Forks Herald, November 18, 1914, p. 6.

“Antitoxin Found For War Gangrene,” New York Times, July 1, 1917, p 15.

“Prof. Emile Roux, Scientist, Is Dead,” New York Times, November 4, 1933, p. 13.

“Tetanus,” Medline Plus, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000615.htm, accessed on July 11, 2013.