The Plano Smallpox Outbreak of 1895

In May 1895, a smallpox outbreak hit west Plano.
1895 Fort Worth Gazette

North Texas is no stranger to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

After all, this was the site of a large measles outbreak in 2013 at the Kenneth Copeland Ministries Eagle Mountain International Church.

And it has also been the site of chicken pox parties, mumps outbreaks, and a few clusters of unvaccinated kids.

Mostly though, parents in North Texas do a good job of getting their kids vaccinated and protected.

The Plano Smallpox Outbreak of 1895

Of course, that’s not what’s keeping smallpox away.

Routine smallpox vaccination, which was typically given when children were about 12 months old, ended in 1972 in the United States. And smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980.

“Today, Preston Lakes is a quiet, manicured neighborhood in an affluent area of Plano. Almost 120 years ago, it was the site of one of Plano’s darkest hours.”

Plano Smallpox Outbreak of 1895

Driving around Plano now, it is hard to imagine that this city once battled smallpox.

While that is probably true of any modern city, the curious thing is that the area in and around Plano wasn’t settled until the early 1840’s, at which time an effective smallpox vaccine had been available for over 40 years.

Remember, Edward Jenner developed his smallpox vaccine in 1796. And before that we had variolation.

“On May 6, 1895, Plano City Council called an emergency meeting, establishing a strict quarantine “to protect our citizens from this loathsome disease.” Anyone within the area between what is now Spring Creek Parkway, Park Boulevard, Coit and Preston Roads was forbidden to leave. An armed guard patrolled the border.”

Plano Smallpox Outbreak of 1895

Farwick Collinsworth, whose family owned large portions of what is now West Plano, lost his 11-year-old granddaughter in the smallpox outbreak.

Next, his wife and two sons died.

Then two more grandchildren and a nephew.

All together, at least 15 people died in the smallpox outbreak of 1895 in Plano, Texas.

“In 1806 the first smallpox inoculations were administered in San Antonio de Béxar. After initial resistance to the experiment, the townspeople came to accept the procedure, and the threat of smallpox was lessened for a time.”

Texas State Historical Association Public Health

While the Plano outbreak is certainly sad, it is truly tragic that smallpox was already a vaccine-preventable disease at this time.

History of Smallpox in Texas

Still, as late as 1900, 894 people died of smallpox in the United States. Globally, at least 300 million people died of smallpox during the 20th century.

So why weren’t folks vaccinated against smallpox in the late 19th century in North Texas?

In 1901, the editor of The Texas Medical Journal discusses the "prejudice against vaccination" in Texas at the time of a widespread smallpox epidemic.
In 1901, the editor of The Texas Medical Journal discusses the “prejudice against vaccination” in Texas, at the time of a widespread smallpox epidemic.

While some people talking about issues with vaccine availability, remember that this is just after almost 100,000 people participated in the Leicester Demonstration March of 1885 to protest the smallpox vaccine.

While Leicester is quite a ways from Plano, a little bit closer to home we had the Laredo Smallpox Riot.

“When he realized that Laredoans were not fully embracing the quarantine program, especially the mandatory inoculation, he asked the governor to send in Texas Rangers. A contingent of rangers under Captain J.H. Rogers arrived on March 19, 1899, and began enforcing the health official’s orders more vigorously than some of the city’s residents thought proper. Milling protestors pelted rangers and health workers with harsh words and harder rocks, leading to a couple of minor injuries.
The next day, when the rangers got word that someone had telephoned a local hardware store to order 2,000 rounds of buckshot, the officers began a house-to-house search of the part of town where the order had come from. The situation soon deteriorated into a riot, with the rangers killing two citizens and wounding 10 others. It took cavalry from nearby Fort McIntosh to restore order.
The inoculation and fumigation program continued, and by May 1, Dr. Blunt lifted the quarantine in the border city.”

Frontier Medicine: Texas Doctors Overcome Disease and Despair

And we had folks pushing homeopathic vaccines, anti-vaccine talking points about the “evil results from vaccination,” all contributing to a “prejudice against vaccination.”

The Texas Medical Journal, in 1902, describes how other areas have controlled or eliminated smallpox with vaccines - but not Texas.
The Texas Medical Journal, in 1902, describes how other areas had controlled or eliminated smallpox with the vaccine – but not Texas.

It maybe shouldn’t be surprising that the last smallpox outbreak in the United States was in Texas – in 1949. Eight people got sick, and one person, Lillian Barber, died.

But Texas wasn’t at the center of the anti-vaccine fight against protecting kids against smallpox. In Utah (the McMillan bill), Minnesota, and California, laws were passed banning mandatory vaccination for attending school. While the governors of Utah and California vetoed their bills, in Utah, legislators overcame the veto.

What came next?

Outbreaks of smallpox.

In 1906, AMA President William J. Mayo, a Minnesota physician, charged that his state’s “inability to enforce vaccination” had unleashed a smallpox epidemic, infecting 28,000 of the state’s citizens – “all due to a small but vociferous band of antivaccination agitators.”

Pox: An American History

That was over a hundred years ago.

What comes next?

Will we let today’s “vociferous band of antivaccination agitators” guide  vaccine policy and put our kids at risk for vaccine-preventable diseases, as they push the same old anti-vaccine propaganda and fight against vaccine mandates, which are only necessary because they scare parents away from vaccinating and protecting their kids?

Let’s hope not.

What to Know About the Plano Smallpox Outbreak of 1895

Fifteen people died in Plano, Texas in 1895, even though a smallpox vaccine was available at the time that could have prevented this and most other smallpox outbreaks and epidemics. Tragically, the fight against its use mirrors much of what we see in today’s anti-vaccine movement.

More on the Plano Smallpox Outbreak of 1895

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