Larry Clinton/Sausalito Historical Society
Back in March of last year, we wrote about the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918, and its eerie parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic which had just been identified. The Spanish Flu, as that virus was called, lasted until April 1920. And just one year later, Sausalito was fighting yet another horrific epidemic. This time it was smallpox, and again the parallels to our recent experience are stunning.
In February 1921 the Sausalito News announced: “The local board of health is insisting upon a more careful observance of the quarantine laws as some of the people instead of doing everything possible to check and eliminate small pox are greatly endangering health conditions by their indifference. Dr Allen H. Vance, local health officer, says that inasmuch the public are careless, the local board of health will rigidly enforce the law, and has authorized the following order: On and after this date, February 19, 1921 any person found entering or leaving any house under quarantine shall be punished to the full extent of the law. Ordinance No. 71 states that a fine of from $25 to $500 may be imposed or imprisonment from ten to ninety days.”
That same issue reported:
“After trying it for a week the Sausalito public schools, finding the attendance very light on account of the small pox, were closed yesterday until the 28th of this month. The average daily attendance was cut down at least seventeen per cent, which if kept up for much longer would cut the apportionment of the teachers down one and possibly two as the apportionment of teachers is based upon the average daily attendance for the term. It is very necessary if the present number of teachers is to be maintained that all patrons of the school have their children attend school regularly. Larger portion of money received by the district is received from this source on average daily attendance.
“On the 15th Dr. Kelly of the State Board of Health vaccinated 57 children in the two schools. Some of these children would be absent from school next week on account of the vaccination. Then too, Tuesday will be a holiday, and some of the pupils would be absent on Monday—at least that has been a rule. The reasons given above are why there will be no school next week. It is almost impossible to ascertain why so many children are out of school. But sickness, fear of the epidemic, and effect of vaccination will account for the largest number of absences. Notice—Dr. Kelly will be at the schools on Monday a. m. the 21st for the purpose of examining those vaccinated on last Tuesday. He will also vaccinate free any who may desire him to do so.”
Measures like those led to strong declines in smallpox after 1921, but the stubborn affliction lingered in pockets. In 1927, according to the News, a popular May Day Fete had to be cancelled in San Anselmo: “Owing to the fact that a few cases of small pox had appeared over the county it was thought inadvisable to group so many children and possibly expose them to this dread disease.”
However, the paper added, “In Sausalito, where every precaution had been taken by vaccinating all school children within 24 hours of the first appearance of small pox, it was considered perfectly safe for the children to go ahead with their plans.”
The earliest evidence of one of the greatest scourges in human history dates to the 3rd century BCE in Egyptian mummies, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s “History of Smallpox”. Caused by virus variants, smallpox is estimated to have killed up to 300 million people in the 20th century and around 500 million people in the last 100 years of its existence, according to Donald Henderson, author of Smallpox: the death of a disease, considered to be the definitive archival history of smallpox.
The last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed in October 1977, and the World Health Organization (WHO) certified the global eradication of the disease in 1980.