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Fighting ‘this loathsome contagion’

Quote fanciers have argued for decades over who said, “History doesn’t repeat itself. It rhymes.”

Whether you chose Mark Twain, Harry Truman, or “nobody I know,” you can bet your last bitcoin that the persistent echoes of history will eventually ring out in the time we’re living in.

Now, if I say, smallpox, you’ll probably ask how that relates to you, today. You may even know that scientists declared the disease eradicated in 1979. So, what’s the connection to you and me from a disease that had been killing millions for over 3,000 years and is now wiped out?


Even though Englishman Edward Jenner had shown the effectiveness of the smallpox vaccine over 70 years before the Jackson County 1868 outbreak of smallpox, very few Southern Oregonians had ever been vaccinated.

The sudden Jacksonville epidemic killed over 20 men, women, and children. At least three times that number were infected, but recovered.

One of the first people in Jacksonville to notice the disease was already in town was local health expert, 47-year old, Dr. Franklin Grube. He wasn’t the only physician in town, but his medical pedigree gave him a lot of credibility. Graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, as well as a medical intern at the University of Paris. He had been a county coroner and a Union surgeon during the Civil War.

“The disease will prevail, more or less, over this entire valley,” he warned. “Avoid the houses in which there is smallpox—avoid handling the clothing of those who have been about the disease—and vaccinate all members of families who have not already been.”

For the next three months, Grube and others urged vaccination for everyone.

The doubters soon saw all schools shutdown and all businesses, except two, close their doors. Owners and employees went home, joining almost everyone else in a self-imposed quarantine.

The Oregon Sentinel newspaper urged, “Immediate vaccination.”

Jacksonville’s Town Council quickly passed three ordinances, covering six pages, “To Prevent the Spread of Contagious Diseases and to Secure the General Health of the Inhabitants of Jacksonville.” A violation of any item would result in a $100 fine.

The very first item: “Each and every person residing within the town limits, who has never been vaccinated, or, in the opinion of a competent physician, is liable to an attack of smallpox, shall submit to vaccination.”

Marshals were appointed and ordered to record the name of every person in town, and a statement determining if the person had been vaccinated, or had previously survived a smallpox attack.

Physicians were to be immediately notified and were required to vaccinate anyone on the list who was “unvaccinated.” The doctor would receive 50 cents for each vaccination, but would be fined up to $100 if they failed to change clothing after each vaccination.

Anyone exposed to the disease was banned in all public places.

The call for vaccination appeared in almost every issue of every newspaper for weeks, and yet, not everyone cared.

Two months after the initial warnings it was obvious that many were ignoring the vaccination orders. The Oregon Sentinel began to sound desperate. “Vaccinate repeatedly until there is no doubt of its efficacy. It will modify if not prevent the disease.”

By the end of February 1869, businesses and schools reopened. For now, “this loathsome contagion” had been contained. In the midst of so much sorrow and death, the newspaper could find only one encouraging fact. “None of those who died had been vaccinated. There is doubt whether any had ever been vaccinated. This proves that vaccination is our only hope.”

It asked Oregon residents to take note. “Take warning by our terrible scourging,” it said, “and attend to vaccination. Had it not been done here, there would have been scarcely enough of us left to bury the dead.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.