Smallpox Epidemics

An explanation of Smallpox from Wikipedia

The larger smallpox epidemics in Newark occurred approximately every six to twelve years between the years 1848 to 1903. Smaller outbreaks occurred almost yearly. 644 people died in the worst epidemic between the years 1871 and 1874 and there were 258 deaths in the epidemic years of 1901 through 1902. These deaths were caused by failure to be vaccinated against smallpox.

Before the discovery of a smallpox vaccine the only way to prevent the disease was to be inoculated. Unfortunately new inoculations created new foci of smallpox infections (until the person recovered from the mild dose) and spread the disease. During an outbreak in 1852, people who chose to be inoculated over vaccinated were forced to leave Newark and were not allowed back until they recovered from the disease.

The fear of the vaccination and the disbelief in its effectiveness occurred in certain ethnic groups, especially the Germans and Italians. An interesting sidelight is that vaccination against smallpox was compulsory in Germany, and Germany and Sweden had the fewest number of smallpox deaths of any Western nation. In 1885 the Newark Board of Education began asking for proof of vaccination as a condition of admission to the public school system. Unfortunately sympathetic physicians falsified vaccination certificates. The Board of Education then tried to make the visible scar of the vaccination the proof for admittance but William N. Barringer, the school superintendent refused to allow it.

Over the years, during the outbreaks, Newark attempted to force vaccinations by going house to house with the district physicians doing the vaccinations. The population did everything to avoid these visits, from fleeing their homes to hiding in barrels. To contain the outbreaks, Newark resorted to isolating the infected areas of the city. Quarantine lines were drawn up using guards to enforce the isolation. Other remedies included the "Pest House". This was a hospital , on the edge of the salt meadows, that was set up to handle the isolation and "treatment" of the victims. Unfortunately the hospital completely lacked any modern conveniences, the salt meadows was an unhealthy area, and the building was so poorly maintained that by 1894 it was considered beyond repair.

From the Newark Daily Advertiser April 8, 1858:

The small pox is said to be somewhat prevalent in various parts of the city and particularly in the Seventh Ward, where some 200 cases are said to exist. Only a few cases, however, have terminated fatally, but two deaths having occurred from the disease last week. Several persons in the more comfortable classes of society have been victims. Nothing but measures or prevention by general vaccination can eradicate this disease.

Books used for this page:
"Newark, the Unhealthiest City"