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Diphtheria, the Dreaded Bacterial Disease


Dakota Territory experienced an immigration boom in the 1880s, but those new settlers often faced difficulties in establishing homesteads.

Disease was a formidable obstacle, and fears of contagion filled parents whenever a child fell ill. The Grand Forks Herald for this date in 1888 told of the “Dakota Boom” of settlers and of those on the area’s “sick list.”

Near Wahpeton, a farmer named John Radke was on the sick-list when he, his wife, and all of their nine children contracted the dreaded diphtheria. Diphtheria was a severe bacterial infection that caused fever, swollen glands, a sore throat and weakness. The infection created a clogging, grayish membrane of dead cells that blocked the windpipe, making its victims struggle to breathe. Death came when diphtheria toxins paralyzed the lungs and heart

Children were most susceptible. If one in a family had the insidious contagion, all would catch it. In that era, doctors figured that nine of ten infected children would die, as quickly as within 36 hours, for this was before immunizations became available in the 1920s. The parents had difficulty helping their children because diphtheria left them too enfeebled.

All infected clothing and bedclothes would be burned to destroy the germs. Sometimes, the entire home was burned.

Farmer John Radke was in a desperate situation, and the Richland County overseer of the poor went to visit him, writing this description:

"I found six of his seven children sick with diphtheria. Two children had died of the same sickness shortly before my arrival at the place. The family was nearly destitute of everything, and I had to order all the necessaries of life, even bedclothes. Three more children died of diphtheria in quick succession and the father and mother being up day and night to attend to the sick, I found it necessary to hire parties to take care of the stock . . . and . . . do the chores for him. At the present time, the four remaining children have recovered from the sickness.”

Radke, being a proud man, paid all the grocery bills and promised to repay the county for everything when autumn came, after he harvested his crops. The county government accepted Radke’s repayment plan.

The Radkes might have recovered materially after diphtheria visited their homestead, but the heartache and sense of loss for those five children would never leave their wounded hearts.

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

Sources: “An Immigration Boom,” Grand Forks Herald , May 9, 1888, p. 2; “Falconer Items,” Grand Forks Herald , May 9, 1888, p. 2.

"Overseer's Report of the Poor," The Wahpeton Times , April 19, 1888, 8.

House and clothing burned, Minutes of the County Commissioners, Walsh County, N.D. , Vol. C, January 9, 1895, p. 336.

“If Diphtheria Is Really In the City,” Grand Forks Herald , March 29, 1886, p. 4.

“Typhoid And Diphtheria Can Now Be Prevented,” The Dispatch [Lexington, N.C.] , August 4, 1921, p. 1.

“Diphtheria Delenda Est,” Grand Forks Herald , October 20, 1885, p. 1.

“Diptheria,”MayoClinicOnline, "http://www.mayclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diptheria/basics/definition/con-200022303" www.mayclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diptheria/basics/definition/con-200022303 , accessed on March 25, 2014.