At the beginning of Virginia's COVID-19 quarantine in March, our blog has highlighted the story of Laura Stanton, an Ashburn resident who was isolated at the infirmary at Vassar College in 1901 after she was potentially exposed to smallpox. Her story is told through her correspondence with her family, written in letters and preserved as part of the Loudoun Museum's collection.
Read Part 1 about paper preservation here.
Read Part 2 about document transcription here.
The last reported case of smallpox in the United States was in 1949, and the World Health Organization announced its official eradication in 1980 but before the refinement of variolation and eventually vaccination, it was a dangerous and recurring problem. In the early 20th century, multiple outbreaks occurred across the country with varying responses. Some counties shut down schools, some bathed school children in alcohol after discovering cases, some entire towns were locked down in quarantine. In New York City, where a huge outbreak was centered, controversy surrounded compulsory vaccinations and quarantine via "smallpox raids."
"During 1900-1904 an average of 48,164 cases and 1528 deaths caused by both severe (variola major) and milder (variola minor) forms of smallpox were reported each year in the United States."
The proximity of the outbreak helps explain why Vassar was a pioneer in creating an on-campus infirmary for the isolation and treatment of ill and potentially exposed students. In the early 20th century, large infirmaries became relatively standard for residential campuses until medical advancements, namely antibiotics and vaccinations, made them less necessary.
Laura's letter to her mother gives us an intimate perspective on quarantine, vaccination, and the pressures of being a college student amid unusual circumstances. Her good spirit and ability to joke about her "imprisonment" is inspiring in today's uncertainty.
Read the full transcription of one of her letters below:
January 22, 1901.
My dear mamma.
Your letter came to-day[sic] at
noon and I don’t think I ever
was so glad to-get[sic] a letter in
my life. It seems months
since I have heard from any
of you, though really only a little
over a week. These two weeks since
I first was have been the longest
and most unsettled I ever spent
in my life. We were just getting
settled at our work again when
Pearl was taken sick and since
that time I have been very un-
settled. Still I don’t think I
ought to complain since I am
not sick myself and so much
better off than poor Pearl is she
from all I can learn is doing
well, but the doctor says she cannot
be well in less than two or three
weeks from now.
I suppose it is just as well
for me to have this experience
of a week in the infirmary, since
I want to take in everything
while I am here at Vassar, that
is get my money’s worth out of it,
and probably I would never have
gotten into the infirmary in
any other way!
I am sorry to hear that Mrs.
Greshin has the “grippe” I hope she
will not be seriously ill with it.
I will find out about the
Greek and Physics as soon as
I can. I should like very much
to study both Chemistry and Physics
but I don’t know how it will be
for next year. I can probably
study both sometime during my
course. My studies for this year
trouble me most just now. The
examinations are next week and
I have lost so much time lately
that even if I am let out in time
for them, I fear I will not do
very well. However the only thing I
can do is to do the best I can. I
have been studying and reviewing
some while I have been in the
infirmary, but it is rather hard
to accomplish much. Perhaps they
will make some allowance for
me, I don’t know how that will
be, but the president, according to
Dr. Shelberg, knows of my imprisonment
as he had to be consulted concerning
it. Dr. P. also said that the college
would remember what I had done
for it in consenting to be isolated
in this case, but I cannot say how
much good this remembering
will do me. Dr. P-[sic] [illegible] me
“a poor much to be pitched little
girl” as she expressed it the
night she came to ask me to
go to the infirmary, but whether
she talked the way she did in-
order to win my confidence I
don’t know. You see I cannot
help being a little suspicious, though
I know it is wrong to be so. She
has certainly been lovely to me
and I am sure she is a good
doctor, for all the girls here get
well very quickly. She came
to see me last night and felt
my pulse and looked me over to
see if I was getting anything
also joked with me about my
vaccination- I declared it wouldn’t
take, but it has, and she seems
to enjoy it very much. The
nurse take my temperature every
morning, to see, she says, how
my vaccination is coming on, but
she won’t tell me what my temperature
is, says I have a very little fever.
I think it must be very little
in deed for I don’t feel it at all.
It is very funny to see her begin
to go out the door in a hurry when
I begin to ask questions. I guess
she has found out, what all my
friends already know, that I have
a great deal of curiosity. Of course
I amuse myself asking questions
to see how she gets around there.
Everyday girls are sent out from
the infirmary and everyday
more come to take their place. I
still have my two [illegible] and am
very comfortable and well fed. The
doctor said last night that I was
looking seated and getting fat.
To day[sic] has been a beautiful
day and I have wished more
than [illegible] to be out of doors, but
still it is nice to have pleasant
weather even if you can’t be out
I am glad you all find
[illegible] so interesting, I have not
said anything much of his, so
I don’t know whether I like him
or not. I am glad Jane takes
an interest in Greek. I think
Greek is as much if not more
use than Latin. I want to
take the short course in Greek
while I am here if I can.
they say it is very hard, best I
guess I might manage it.
Now he very particular about
not writing or saying anything
where it will get out, about any-
thing I write you about the college
about the sickness here, and what
Dr. Shelbug says. This may seem
foolish to you, but I promised
Dr. Shelbug that I wouldn’t write any-
thing except to you and that you
wouldn’t say anything about it.
You know how things are exagger-
ated and how stories grow as they
I have not received Jane’s picture
yet, but not doubt it will come in
P.S. I am at no expense while I am
here in the infirmary. Dr. Taylor
I think was very kind to think
of that when he was insulted
about my coming here. Dr. Shelberg
said even if I was sick I would
have the best of care free of charge.
“Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999 Impact of Vaccines Universally Recommended for Children -- United States, 1990-1998.” Accessed August 14, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00056803.htm.
Marvar, Alexandra. “How New York Separated Immigrant Families in the Smallpox Outbreak of 1901.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed August 14, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-new-york-separated-immigrant-families-smallpox-outbreak-1901-180971211/.
Turner, H. Spencer, and Janet L. Hurley. The History and Practice of College Health. University Press of Kentucky, 2014.