Beck: Before Vaccines

Apr 24, 2015

Few of us remember how dangerous diseases like measles and polio were before vaccination, but a story told by Everett Palmer of Waitsfield and archived by the Vermont Folklife Center brings this home vividly.

Everett’s brother Casey was 16, when he came down with infantile paralysis, the first case known in the Mad River Valley during the 1917 outbreak. He had been in a play at the town hall in Waitsfield and the young actors were to travel to Northfield to perform , when Casey took ill. Within three days he had died. Everyone was stunned, particularly as they realized the seriousness of the diagnosis. His younger sister and two younger brothers, one of them Everett, were also ill. Casey was buried on Sunday and the next morning Everett heard his mother talking in hushed desperate tones to his father , saying “I wonder if we’re going to lose them all. ” I can remember that just as if it was said today,” Everett told me.

As it turned out, the rest of the children survived, although one brother, Dwight suffered with a withered leg, and a permanent limp while Everett experienced only a brief illness with a high fever. Waitsfield was particularly hard hit by the epidemic, sustaining the most cases per capita of any Vermont town. A number of other children were afflicted, and as each individual was diagnosed the entire household was put into quarantine for a month.

Nobody understood the disease, the cause, why it selected one child with paralysis, another with only minor symptoms. Such uncertainty made it the more terrifying. Everett remembered his whole family had to remain inside the house. Their only communication with the outside world was through the telephone. His father could not go out to the barn and care for his livestock. Neighbors milked his cows morning and afternoon, fed the animals and did all the necessary chores. Others dropped off groceries and supplies on the porch. If they needed kerosene a neighbor would bring his own container and pour it into the pail the Palmers left outside their door. They were careful not to exchange containers.

Strong measures for a terrifying time but it gives us insight into the devastation of family life before available vaccines.