Smallpox in Koosharem

This episode originally aired on KCPW March 9, 2007.
This episode’s audio file may be found at http://www.utahhumanities.org/BeehiveArchive.htm
© 2007 Utah Humanities Council

The Script:

One hundred and seven years ago this week, the village of Koosharem found itself in the throes of a major smallpox outbreak that had state health officials concerned.  According to the Salt Lake Herald, authorities at first thought the disease might have been the chicken pox.  But as it became clear that the outbreak was much more serious, debate over what needed to be done intensified, and a quarantine was eventually declared.  People were told they now had to stay at home, and outsiders were prohibited from entering the town. 

According to the Herald, the citizens of Koosharem didn’t like being told to stay put.  The paper reported that townspeople continued to mingle at dances, church meetings, and funerals.  A few weeks into the outbreak more than twenty citizens had come down with the pox, frightening people in surrounding towns.  One man, an Arthur Montague from Greenwich, wrote to health officials, claiming the disease was being spread to neighboring towns by travelers and peddlers.  If something wasn’t done quickly, fumed Montague, all of the surrounding countryside would be crawling with smallpox. 

When the outbreak began, there was no local board of health to manage it and there weren’t any doctors in town to provide immediate care, though a few physicians later made the trip to Koosharem to help tend to the sick.  The fact that the tiny town lay on the disputed border between Piute and Sevier Counties also didn’t help matters.

So was the smallpox epidemic really as bad as people made it out to be?  The leading citizens of the Koosharem claimed their neighbors and the papers had blown things out of proportion.  For the Koosharemites, it was a clear case of unwarranted mass hysteria.  Every case of smallpox, they declared, had been quarantined, schools had been closed, and public meetings had been banned.  If that’s true, then their efforts helped the epidemic burn itself out.  By the end of April, the pox had left Koosharem behind.  According to authorities, a total of 45 people had come down with the disease.

The Rest of the Story:

The 1900 Koosharem smallpox outbreak appears to have been a part of a larger statewide epidemic, and similar eruptions of smallpox in other Utah towns coincided with the occurrences in Koosharem.  In addition to outbreaks in Fillmore, Springville, Payson, Spanish Fork, and Cedar Fort, there were also cases of the disease in San Juan and Carbon counties that year.  According to historian Martha Bradley, an occurrence of smallpox in Greenville (Beaver County) “caused neighbors to take precautions against contact with those outside their families.”  A year later, a smallpox epidemic struck Iron County, causing the Cedar City council to hire guards to patrol places under quarantine.

Perhaps the most interesting result of the statewide smallpox epidemic of 1900 was the political fight it helped spark between proponents, led by the State Board of Health (which met officially for the first time in 1898), and opponents of vaccination.  As scholar Richard Neitzel Holzapfel points out, the state health board issued a proclamation in January 1900 making smallpox vaccination mandatory among school children “in smallpox infested districts.”  There was some question, however, among local political leaders about the effectiveness of the smallpox vaccine, causing some communities to flout the state directive and resist mandatory vaccination.  Eventually, anti-vaccinationists took the issue to the Utah Supreme Court, but were rebuffed; the court sided with the health board.  Undaunted, opponents of vaccination turned to the legislature, which, in January 1901, passed the “McMillan Bill” which outlawed compulsory vaccination.  When Governor Heber Wells refused to sign the bill, the legislature overrode his veto and made the bill law.  Only later federal laws forced Utah to toe the line and engage in mandatory vaccination.

Sources:

See news reports about the Koosharem smallpox outbreak in the following editions of the Salt Lake Herald: February 24, 1900; March 9, 1900; March 11, 1900; March 12, 1900; March 17, 1900; March 22, 1900; March 23, 1900; and April 25, 1900.  See also Martha Sonntag Bradley, A History of Beaver County (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society and Beaver County Commission, 1999), 206; and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, A History of Utah County (Salt Lake City: Utah County Commission and Utah State Historical Society, 1999), 121-125.

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