Marshfield, June 1901: Going viral
Smallpox spreads across Wisconsin in the early 1900s
By Kris Leonhardt
In May of 1980, the World Health Organization announced the eradication of smallpox. The disease entered the United States many years earlier with the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors.
A vaccine was developed in the late 1700s, by which a form of smallpox was injected into the body, and that would generally ward off the disease in any form. Through the use of quarantines and vaccines, the country fought the disease, which arrived in two forms, mild and severe, with the most severe form resulting in a 30 percent mortality rate.
Even with medical intervention and public education, America could not fully get a grip on the disease, and in the very late 1800s, a strain popped up in the northern logging camps of Wisconsin.
By early 1901 Wisconsin felt like it had once again tamed the disfiguring and deadly disease, but once June rolled around, the state was faced with the frightening reality.
As cases waned in the early months of 1901, residents ignored the quarantine law and began moving freely about their communities. In its earliest stages, the disease was unrecognizable, thought to simply be a high fever. When a deadly sickness followed the fever, the public became alarmed.
By this time 100 cases had been presented in the Rudolph area. With frequent travel between Rudolph and Marshfield, the city was on high alert. A Rudolph resident who worked in Wisconsin Rapids had already transferred it to that city. Within one week’s time, it had spread to Stevens Point as well. Marshfield would surely be next.
The entire eastern portion of Rudolph was sectioned off, and all roads leading from Rudolph to surrounding towns were guarded by police, who turned away travelers. Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids also used isolation methods to keep the disease at bay.
Marshfield residents sat in fear, for it was just a matter of time before smallpox reached their fair city. Over the next few months, fear developed at each mention of a new case presenting itself in surrounding communities.
By the time fall set in, the mention of a new case generated little excitement, but when a smallpox sign went up over a small cottage in the Marshfield, a ripple of fear was generated among its residents. It had reached their city.
A short time later, classes at the high school were cancelled when a teacher was struck with the ailment.
By this time vaccines had become commonplace, and with no development of severe cases, the city was spared devastation.