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Transcribed: A 1901 Quarantine Story (Part 3)

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:

Vassar College

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

of doors.

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


With love


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.

Marvar, Alexandra. “How New York Separated Immigrant Families in the Smallpox Outbreak of 1901.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed August 14, 2020.

Turner, H. Spencer, and Janet L. Hurley. The History and Practice of College Health. University Press of Kentucky, 2014.

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