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A Town Under Lockdown: Poteau's Smallpox Epidemic of 1921

Eric Standridge is a historian and author that focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau, Oklahoma.

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The Smallpox Epidemic of 1921/1922

Smallpox, which is believed to have originated over 3,000 years ago in India or Egypt, is one of the most devastating diseases known to humanity. For centuries, repeated epidemics swept across continents, decimating populations and changing the course of history.

In some ancient cultures, smallpox was such a major killer of infants that custom forbade the naming of a newborn until the infant had caught the disease and proved it would survive.

Smallpox killed Queen Mary II of England, Emperor Joseph I of Austria, King Luis I of Spain, Tsar Peter II of Russia, Queen Ulrika Elenora of Sweden, and King Louis XV of France.

The disease, for which no effective treatment was ever developed, killed as many as 30% of those infected. Between 65–80% of survivors were marked with deep pitted scars (pockmarks), most prominent on the face.

As late as the 18th century, smallpox killed every 10th child born in Sweden and France. During the same century, every 7th child born in Russia died from smallpox.

Edward Jenner's demonstration, in 1798, that inoculation with cowpox could protect against smallpox brought the first hope that the disease could be controlled.

By the 1920's, it had become possible to fight against smallpox; however, no real effective cure had yet been developed.

In Poteau, the great smallpox epidemic broke out in December of 1921 and would last for more than three months. Within the city, more than 20 people died and many more scored by the ugly after effects of the virus.

The cause of the great smallpox epidemic in Poteau can be blamed on an itinerant hobo. A man who was a carrier of the smallpox virus had been arrested as a vagrant by a deputy sheriff and placed in the LeFlore county jail. Not knowing that the person carried the virus, the jailer put him in with the general population of prisoners. As a result, other prisoners, as well as law officers and visitors to the jail, were exposed to the virus and contracted the disease.

The prisoner had been in Kansas City, Missouri, from November 16 to November 27, during which time an epidemic of smallpox was present in that city. This man had been vaccinated forty-four years previously, but not since.

The first signs that the prisoner was sick were noticed on December 5. The case was reported to the city health officer on December 18th, thirteen days later. In the meantime he had been in contact with thirty other prisoners and with the county officials. Once the health officer was notified, he sat about offering vaccinations to the other prisoners who desired it. Throughout the epidemic, from December 21, 1921, to January 5, 1922, eighteen cases appeared among the other prisoners.

Although the original patient recovered, every prisoner in the jail who had not been vaccinated contracted the disease. Ten prisoners who had been successfully vaccinated within the three preceding years did not contract the disease, although they had been in intimate contact with virulent cases.

At first, the virus had been contained within the jail, but as law enforcement officers and visitors began to become infected, it quickly spread throughout the city.

A widespread panic occurred once people learned that the virus was loose in the city. During the height of the outbreak, those infected were quarantined within their homes. With guards patrolling outside, yellow ribbons were hung in the doorways to warn others that the people inside were infected with the virus. Food would be brought to the homes and left on the doorstep. Anyone who was suspect of having the virus were ostracized, and those who did have it were virtually abandoned.

Government health officials soon got involved and set up a plan in order to control and eradicate the virus. The city government of Poteau issued a Health Proclamation imposing a strict quarantine on persons and places exposed to the smallpox virus and requiring valid vaccinations of all persons in the community.

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Strict Measures; Many Died

The state health commissioner assumed charge of the epidemic on January 15 and immediately instituted control measures. All persons who refused to be vaccinated were placed under quarantine, and all the small towns in the vicinity of Poteau were quarantined against that city. After the state health commissioner took charge, he promptly issued a report stating that "Smallpox is a loathsome, dangerous disease often mild, but frequently fatal." He took charge, and on hearing of Poteau's situation, forcibly closed off the town from outside visitors.

The town remained closed for three months. During that time, strict measures were taken to ensure that nobody was allowed in or out of the city. Railroad lines were instructed not to stop at the depot. Even the streets were empty; food deliveries were made by designated people to homes throughout. If someone was infected with smallpox, they were required to tie a ribbon on their door so that others know to stay away. Food was left on the ground outside to ensure no contact was made. It was a period of time where it seemed that all life ceased to exist, with Poteau becoming a virtual ghost town.

Eradication of Smallpox and the Aftereffects

By the end of the smallpox epidemic, in addition to the eighteen cases occurring in the jail, nineteen cases occurred in the general community. There were fourteen in Poteau and five elsewhere in LeFlore County. Of the fourteen smallpox patients in Poteau, twelve died during the period of January first through the eighteenth. Of the five outside of Poteau, three died. Thirty-eight cases with twenty four deaths resulted from the original source of infection at the county jail.

In the early 1950’s, 150 years after the introduction of vaccination, an estimated 50 million cases of smallpox occurred in the world each year, a figure which fell to around 10 to 15 million by 1967 because of vaccination.

In 1967, when the World Health Organization launched an intensified plan to eradicate smallpox, the "ancient scourge" threatened 60% of the world's population, killed every fourth victim, scarred or blinded most survivors, and eluded any form of treatment.

Through the success of the global eradication campaign, smallpox was finally pushed back to the horn of Africa and then to a single last natural case, which occurred in Somalia in 1977. A fatal laboratory-acquired case occurred in the United Kingdom in 1978. The global eradication of smallpox was certified, based on intense verification activities in countries, by a commission of eminent scientists in December 1979 and subsequently endorsed by the World Health Assembly in 1980.

The last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed on 26 October 1977.

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Sources

Much of the information contained here comes from places such as the Poteau Daily News, the Poteau Star, The LeFlore County Sun, and other regional newspapers. Other sources include the Oklahoma Historical Society Archives, the Oklahoma Pioneer Papers, and the book "The Birth of Poteau".

General information comes from the Library of Congress archives and from the Centers for Disease Control.

© 2020 Eric Standridge

Comments

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on April 14, 2020:

Fascinating account. I scanned through twice looking for the state, but googled it to find it was Oklahoma. Then, I noticed you had the state in your summary but I missed that.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 04, 2020:

In the late 60s early 70s I remember being vaccinated against smallpox. My mother had worked in Africa before then, so was probably over sensitive to the risk.

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