The last case of small pox in the world was diagnosed in 1977.
In South Dakota’s early years, the spotted disease was a feared disease that in 35 out of 100 cases resulted in death.
Those who survived were more than likely disfigured pittings in their skin.
Caring for victims and keeping the disease in check in South Dakota’s small farming communities in the early days was left up to the few physicians who dared risk exposure to the disease.
In most South Dakota county’s, doctors worked closely with county health committees.
In a 1902 outbreak, the minutes of the Brookings County Commission probably mirror what was happening in other South Dakota counties, too.
For the poor, and there were many, there were expenses for disinfectants and money to pay those who fumigated homes. The house of the patient was vacated and sealed. A washtub with about two inches of water in it was placed in the center of the largest ground floor room. Sulfur in a pie pan was lit and the pan floated on the tub’s water.
Maybe those sulfur fumes worked. Probably they didn’t.
Poole’s Livery in Brookings got $10 for “use of team of horses needed in fumigating,” probably for use by fumigators and to convey patients to the county “pest house.”
Livery barns were also hired to deliver medicines and goods and groceries to the pest house, where patients of poor families were kept. County records show that one meat market was paid for $3 for meat for the pest house. A grocer billed the county for “milk for the pest house, $34.34.”
The Farmers Shipping Association dumped $129.35 of coal down the pest house chute.
A local lady sold two bed quilts to the county for pest house patients. She submitted a bill of $5, but commissioners only approved $2.50. All clothing and bedding in the pest house had to be burned after use.
Doctors who visited patients in rural areas were careful to pack extra sets of clothing in their buggies. After visiting the patients, they scurried to the barn, changed into the spare set and burned the clothing they arrived in.
Patients who were confined to the pest house were the most critically ill. Their family members, possibly exposed to the disease, were quarantined in the family home after it was fumigated. A sign was hung on the door to warn visitors. Imagine parents ordered to send their suffering young children to spend hours alone in the pest house with other ill strangers.
To discourage family members from sneaking out of the house, counties often hired guards. In Brookings, Ed Sorenson and Ben Larson each earned $40 one month in 1902 to “insure quarantine.”
Angels emerged in every county.
Like Jessie Young. He risked pain and death to spend time in the pest house feeding the ill, dispensing medication, comforting them, banking the fire, handling the messes and giving hope. The commissioners one month approved $105 to Jessie for his pest house vigils. A good day’s pay in 1902 was $3.
For poor families who lost loved ones to the spotted disease, the county hired grave diggers and furnished $15 coffins.
A minister got $2 in county funds to recite graveside prayers for those who departed this world alone, their bodies placed in those cheap coffins, loaded on rattling wagons for the long, lonely trip to the cemetery, all without the escort of tearful family members who mourned together from afar, confined to their home under strict quarantine.
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