Indiana History: The Muncie Smallpox Epidemic of 1893
FACT: the effectiveness of vaccines has more evidential support than the American Revolution. That means it’s easier to deny the existence of George Washington than to deny the effectiveness of vaccines.
That said, we should remember that vaccine denialism isn’t unique to the 21st century. In fact, one of the ugliest anti-vaccination incidents occurred in Indiana over a century ago, now known as the Muncie Smallpox Outbreak of 1893.
According to the World Health Organization, the disease has been eradicated since 1980. However, in the 20th-century smallpox killed almost half a billion (yes, BILLION) people. A shocking number, no doubt.
What’s more shocking is that Edward Jenner discovered and demonstrated the effectiveness of the vaccine in 1798. It took the world almost two hundred years after a vaccine existed to eliminate smallpox. The outbreak in Muncie demonstrated why it was so difficult to control the spread of the disease.
As smallpox epidemics go, Muncie’s smallpox epidemic in 1893 was mild. In total, approximately 150 individual cases were reported in the city. There were 22 deaths. Tragic, to be sure, but lower than the overall 30% fatality rate of smallpox cases.
In August of 1893, a report of “black chicken pox” escalated into 14 full-blown cases of smallpox. Muncie’s town board quarantined the afflicted and exposed family members. Guards were posted outside their homes, essentially marking them as plague houses.
However, neither the victims nor Muncie citizens accepted the quarantine. Clandestine visitors scurried in and out of the affected homes, rendering the quarantine useless. The smallpox vaccine, which had been clearly demonstrated as effective (for nearly a century by that point), was still controversial. Some people considered the insertion of cow pus, which made up the vaccine at that time, to be too gross.
Others thought that the vaccine was useless, since a small percentage of those inoculated still developed the disease. In these instances, infection was the result of a spoiled vaccine or the disease was already incubating before the individual was inoculated.
As the epidemic progressed and spread, traveling out of the city was restricted. Only healthy, vaccinated individuals could leave. Officials fumigated the mail. Eventually, the town’s train service temporarily ended. By refusing the original quarantine, Muncie had essentially quarantined itself.
Family members attempted to hide those infected with the disease, but health officials easily tracked them down. In some cases, officials broke down doors to place individuals in a more restricted quarantine. The quarantine was backed by the full authority of the Muncie police. Citizens fought back, sometimes with firearms.
Luckily, only one person was wounded during an attempted extraction of a smallpox victim. In Muncie’s two smallpox hospitals, treatment for smallpox included scrubbing the sores with a painful solution of mercury chloride daily.
Over a hundred guards were employed to maintain the quarantine. Although seemingly tyrannical, the measures taken by local officials ended the epidemic by November. As painful as it was, the quarantine worked. It was a dark time for Muncie, for Indiana, and for the entire nation. Events still reverberate today.