The Vaccination Campaign that Came Before COVID-19

May 19, 2021

Two unidentified Ho-Chunk children with smallpox stand outside of their home.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

Many people in the Northwoods have gotten vaccinated against Covid-19, but a significant minority continues to resist vaccination.  The reasoning against vaccination usually revolves around uncertainty for health and safety, and for reasons of civil liberties.  These are old arguments, and not so different as those used during the smallpox epidemic. 

Our ancestors had to cope with the specter of disease and the possibility of death in ways that most of us cannot comprehend.  There was a near constant fear that smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, cholera, diphtheria, pneumonia, and any number of childhood infections could strike and kill without warning.  Of these maladies, smallpox was the most widespread medical terror of the past, and it was a particular concern in the Northwoods where it spread throughout the lumber camps.

There was a nationwide smallpox epidemic at the turn of the twentieth century.  Hundreds of people died in major cities across the United States, and smaller communities like those in the Northwoods saw the epidemic wreak havoc on local economies.  A smallpox vaccination had been available since 1796, but without government regulation to ensure quality and safety it was a risky and invasive procedure.  As a result, many people resisted vaccination and thought the idea of compulsory vaccination as a threat to their health and an invasion of individual rights.  This, even though ordinary smallpox had a fatality rate of 30 percent while the malignant and hemorrhagic forms were nearly always fatal.

In the Northwoods, smallpox spread on Reservations and in three major industries.  It struck in lumbering and logging camps; in the cutting, storing, and shipping of ice; and in paper mills.  What did those industries have in common?  Workers would frequently use common rags to wipe their face, hands, and tools.  Once an infected individual used the rag, any subsequent user was at risk.  Persons infected with smallpox were placed into quarantine.  However, before the illness was identified, these workers spread the disease throughout the community.

In 1900, there was a particularly nasty outbreak of smallpox at the logging camps out west in the vicinity of Hayward.  The camps had to be shut down, the infected men isolated, and the entire operation disinfected.  The railroad was instructed to no longer stop at the spur near the camps to stop the spread, but the order came after more than a few potentially infected men had already fled in fear.  In Rhinelander and other Northwoods towns, reports regularly appeared of people being placed into quarantine with smallpox or of contracting smallpox after having traveled by rail through one of these communities.

In 1902, the Supreme Court ruled that a state had the right to order the vaccination of its population during an epidemic to protect the public welfare.  In Wisconsin, the situation was bad enough that in 1905 the State Board of Health attempted to shepherd a compulsory vaccination law through the state legislature.  The bill never passed and was effectively killed by Assemblyman Hal Brooks of Rhinelander, who saw it as a violation of individual liberty.

The consequence was that the disease continued to spread unabated.  The year 1915 was particularly bad with Madison and Milwaukee suffering the worst of it, but Rhinelander and other Northwoods communities also had casualties.  After a 1934 outbreak in Rhinelander schools, the public began to slowly accept vaccination.  Schoolchildren were vaccinated, and by 1952 smallpox was eliminated from North America.