Missionaries and Smallpox, 1900

By July 15, 2008

 As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently working with the missionary diaries of an Elder Joseph Brooks who served in Southeast Texas from 1899 to 1902. Elder Brooks’ description of a smallpox outbreak strikes me as interesting. He wrote (19 Jan 1900):

We did not think it wise to hold any meetings there as there was a disease among the people that had been pronounced Small Pox by some of the Doctors. So we did not try to get a house to preach in. We distributed some tracts among the people in places where we thought there was the least danger of coming in contact with the disease. We left the town and went into the country.

On 24 Jan he noted that they “had decided to leave that settlement as there seemed to be very little interest and besides it was sickly times.” A week later, 02 Feb 1900, they had to change boarding plans:

We went on with the expectation of stopping with a friend we had made the trip before but he had a sick child. He said she had that breaking out that was called small pox. So we did not want to come in contact with the disease. We were not afraid of it ourselves but we were afraid we might be the means of scattering it.

The disease was probably Variola minor or “pseudo-smallpox,” an outbreak of which began in Florida in 1896 and spread over the whole country. Unlike the often fatal V. major, V. minor was only occasionally fatal and often mild enough to pass as chickenpox or measles. [1] The diagnostic ambiguity might be why Elder Brooks specified that “some” of the doctors called it smallpox.

Most striking to me is Brooks’ assertion that “we were not afraid of it ourselves.” So far, I’ve come up with five possible (non-exclusive) sources for their confidence: youthful bravado, disdain for a mild disease, and confidence in divine protection, vaccination, or some way to avoid contraction. I find the first two unlikely. Elder Brooks had already seen plenty of sick missionaries. Over the course of his mission, he or his companion were ill or injured about one of every five days—hardly a lifestyle conducive to bravado about disease. [2] It is possible the Elders simply weren’t impressed by V. minor‘s relatively mild symptoms, but who scoffs at chicken pox, “mild” or not?

The third possibility is more plausible: Mormon scriptures and preaching suggest that missionaries receive protection against harm and disease. [3] However, the Elders’ own experience with illness, the measured expectations they placed on faith-based healing, their reliance on medicine, and their concern about becoming disease vectors indicate a non-fundamentalist approach to divine protection. [4] Though they might have expected to avoid the worst of some conditions, they did not expect to be spared every suffering.

Alternately, it is possible they thought they knew how to avoid smallpox infection but not transmission, though Elder Brooks doesn’t say so. It seems most likely that the Elders had been vaccinated. Smallpox immunization and/or containment policies were implemented in Mormon colonies as early as the 1850s and became more aggressive in the late 1890s (though were still voluntary) so the Elders had ample opportunity for immunization. The programs became far more vigorous after the 1899-1900 outbreak in Utah. [5] At some point after Elder Brooks’ mission, vaccinations became standard. A 1926 announcement noted that “it is now the custom for missionaries to be vaccinated for smallpox and innoculated (sic) for typhoid fever before entering the mission field. This has been done at the Missionary Home, but it is considered advisable to request missionaries to have this attended to at home before reporting here.”

I was reminded of this episode by SC Taysom’s post on exorcism last week.

[1] Donald R. Hopkins, Princes and Peasants: Smallpox in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 287-290. See also, for example, “A Smallpox Epidemic in Texas,” New York Times, 19 Jan 1900, p. 2.

[2] I count 119 days out of the 591 days 30 Oct 99 – 11 June 01 when one or both of the companions were ill or injured. There were 15 other days Elder Brooks felt poorly but worked. I’ll forbear on a more detailed description of the counting criteria. For comparison, in the 1970s the average illness/injury loss rate was between 4 and 6 days per capita per year (1 – 2% of days per companionship versus Elder Brooks’ 20%; missionaries who returned home early were not counted after they went home). Susan Jensen, “Health Problems of Selected LDS Missionaries Throughout the World” (Master’s Thesis, Brigham Young University, 1981).

[3] For example, Matt. 6:25-34, Mark 16:17-18, 1 Nephi 22:17, Mosiah 13:2-8, D&C 84:65-73. I haven’t chased down contemporary sources about missionary protection, but I think the point is well attested.

[4] Elder Brooks describes multiple administrations to the sick but not at the expense of temporal care. He also does not seem theologically distraught when healings are not immediate.

[5] That is, when the 1896 Florida epidemic reached Utah. Eric L. Bluth, “Pus, Pox, Propaganda and Progress: The Compulsory Smallpox Vaccination Controversy in Utah, 1899-1901” (Masters Thesis, Brigham Young University, 1993), p. 19-28.

[6] Heber J. Grant, 20 Sep 1926 in James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1833-1964 (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966-1971), Vol. 5, p. 248-249. The Mission Home was created in the early 1920s.


  1. Except for the Turkish mission, I don’t recall having come across smallpox in connection with missionaries before. Just one more thing for mothers to worry about …

    I do, however, come across frequent references to smallpox epidemics in the part of Utah I have worked with the most — it seemed to be a very common thing in the mining camps. Perhaps this is related to your 5th possibility, or maybe it’s a 6th: these particular elders may have been immune (or thought they were immune) to smallpox due to prior exposure.

    But it seems that whether they believed they were immune due to prior exposure or due to spiritual protection, it seems they weren’t taking unnecessary chances, by working in the “right” neighborhoods and then by going into the country.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 15, 2008 @ 10:53 am

  2. I think that the possibility of them being vaccinated is quite high. Joseph F. Smith talked about not being afraid to administer to those with Small Pox because his “guardians” had vaccinated him when young. Jared* has had at least a couple posts on the vaccination thing (here and here).

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 15, 2008 @ 10:55 am

  3. The history of vaccines and other medical advances is one of my favorite areas of reading.

    A good comprehensive overview is Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver (Allen, 2007). I mention it because it goes into some detail about the tension between religion and vaccination, including the fascinating story of Cotton Mather’s role in promoting early smallpox inoculation.

    Thinking of immunizations in Salt Lake City in particular, I turned to Of Medicines, Hospitals, and Doctors (Richards, 1953). I can’t find anything on smallpox, but on immunizations in general, he doesn’t have too many kind words for early efforts in Salt Lake City.

    On diphtheria, which Richards said was the second leading cause of death in SLC during the 1900s:

    It will be noted that Salt Lake was tardy in inaugurating a program of prevention and slow in getting it underway. The first inoculations were given in 1922…[after the first successful vaccine was released in 1913].

    On typhoid fever, which struck periodically, including around 1911, when SLC had around 700 cases and 73 deaths in two years:

    In 1912, the Health Department advertised its willingness to give free immunization to any citizen who applied for the service. The response was disappointing [90 inoculations in 1912, 156 in 1913, 132 in 1914, 44 in 1915 and so forth]… When, during the 1920’s, five cases of typhoid occurred in Magna, Utah, [Dr. Samuel Paul] again emphasized the desirability of mass immunization. Twenty-five hundred people responded, and typhoid was stamped out in that community. The citizens of Salt Lake City have never shown any such intelligent response in an effort to eliminate a public danger.


    I know you all know the sources better than I do, but I always enjoy mentioning Richard’s non-party-line view of early public health, surgery, hospitals, and mining/medical issues in Utah.

    Comment by Researcher — July 15, 2008 @ 11:57 am

  4. Ardis: Turkish mission smallpox? What’s the story?

    I am embarassed to have left out the sixth and most obvious possibility: immunity from surviving the disease. The fifth possibility I intended as a folklore coverall: they thought they knew how the disease worked and thus how to avoid it—by wearing garlic and a silver bullet or whatever. I detect no indication that Elder Brooks actually thought that way.

    Comment by Edje — July 15, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  5. J. Stapley: Thanks for the links to Jared*. I had forgotten about Alexander’s discussion of the issue.

    Researcher: Thanks for the refs; both are new to me. If vaccination history’s your thing… the Bluth thesis on Utah’s smallpox vaccination struggle is available online.

    Comment by Edje — July 15, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

  6. Edje, I’ll have to go back through the materials I’ve collected on the Turkish mission to find some specific references for you. The reason I remember it at all is because I wrote one of my women’s history posts on Gohar Yeghaian Davidian, who earned one of her many laurels by taking into her own home missionaries who were ill with smallpox.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 15, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  7. Edje, I just sent you some clips about smallpox among missionaries in the Eastern States Mission from the first few years of the 20th century. Maybe they will be of interest as a contemporary contrast to your study of the Texas missionary.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 15, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  8. I’ve been researching my grandmother’s background. She and her sisters were the lone survivors of a smallpox epidemic in the border town of Rio Grande right across from Brownsville, Texas in the mid-1900;s. Her mother and siblings all died leaving her father widowed. My grandmother had a poxed face. I never realized how very serious small pox was back then. Your article helped validate my grandmother’s story; small pox knew no boundaries and probably crossed over into mexico through the frequent workers who went back and forth.

    Comment by L. Campos — September 25, 2008 @ 9:38 pm


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