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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Breaking Out All Over


As we wonder whether bird flu will reach our shores and whether it will infect humans, it's helpful to look back on previous epidemics to see how people responded. The article above details how Wisconsin coped with 100,000 cases of Spanish influenza in late 1918, but that was by no means the only epidemic in our history.

Smallpox was probably the most widespread medical terror in our past. In May of 1915 an outbreak in Madison filled the hospitals and even took down the staff at St. Mary's, including the nurses and nuns. Ten years earlier, in August of 1895, it had swept through the southside of Milwaukee where the traditions of recent Polish immigrants clashed with modern public health practices. The first patients were segregated at an isolation hospital outside the neighborhood, even though the residents preferred caring for their own sick in their own homes, as they had in the old country. When hospital patients began dying, the residents came to see it as a slaughterhouse where they would never send their loved ones. This only increased the spread of disease, of course, and soon thousands were affected. But when city health officials or ambulances attempted to remove patients to protect the uninfected, they were met by barricaded doors and armed uprisings. A protest rally drew nearly 10,000 people to the hospital who stoned the police and fired pistols in the air. The 100 police officers nevertheless plunged into the crowd swinging billy clubs, cracking heads and driving people back to their homes.

Other smallpox outbreaks occured in 1894 and 1872, and the state was swept by cholera in 1849. The same disease had decimated the troops at Fort Crawford in August 1833, taking down 23 soldiers and killing six. But the most notorious epidemic in our history was surely the Lake Superior smallpox outbreak of 1770, when the British deliberately introduced the disease among the Ojibwe in revenge for the death of a fur trader. At least 300 people around modern Duluth-Superior were killed in this early act of bio-terrorism.
:: Posted in on February 1, 2006

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