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Smallpox in Fargo


A smallpox epidemic in Fargo, Dakota Territory, forced drastic actions in 1883. On this date that year, Fargo Mayor William A. Kindred was given the authority by the city council to take measures to fight the outbreak. He set up a hospital, ordered the burning of clothing, and required doctors to report smallpox cases.

The smallpox outbreaks struck Fargo from 1881 to 1883. The city council voted in the fall of 1881 for vaccinations and for barring infected persons from “smallpox districts” from coming into town. The Fargo Medical Society petitioned the city council in 1882 for further action on the disease, and in the spring of that year, the city paid Dr. Edward Darrow $50 for vaccinations.

On this date in 1883, Darrow also became Fargo’s city health officer. He had come to Dakota Territory from Wisconsin in the spring of 1878. He set up his practice in Fargo and became the territory’s first superintendent of health. He was also North Dakota’s surgeon general from 1890 to 1892.

Various residents also pitched in, making their homes available as smallpox hospitals to quarantine patients. The city council paid to maintain these “smallpox houses,” even paying the grocery bills. M.R. Knowles was reimbursed $17.50 for the groceries at his “smallpox house.”

And smallpox wasn’t the only disease problem in Fargo that year. Diphtheria and scarlet fever also broke out, with the city continuing to pay “pest house” bills and even damages for homes and goods affected by the disease. The smallpox apparently spread to Minnesota too. State health officials telegraphed each other, agreeing that a Brainerd resident visiting Duluth had contracted smallpox in Fargo
Epidemics were common in Fargo’s early years. Disease outbreaks led to the city creating its health board, improving water and sewer systems, and establishing dump grounds. Smallpox, typhoid fever, scarlet fever and diphtheria came and went into the 20th century. Despite sanitation improvements and mass vaccinations, smallpox continued as a serious health issue in Fargo as late as 1905.

Dakota Datebook written by Jack Dura


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Minnesota State Board of Health. (1884). Tenth report of the state board of health of Minnesota. The Pioneer Press Company: St. Paul, MN.