Division of Archives and Records Service

Reflections From the Past: Smallpox in Turn-of-the-Century Utah

Heidi Steed
October 19, 2021

Dr. Hubert F. Andrews had just graduated from the Chicago College of Physicians and Surgeons when he settled in Gunnison, Utah, in the summer of 1899, taking a job as a Sanpete County quarantine doctor. A year earlier in 1898, Utah’s State Board of Health directed local governments to form their own health boards to oversee the diagnosis of contagious diseases and to help quarantine infected homes. Unfortunately, lack of adequate funding meant that Utah’s local governments had been slow to respond to the call to form health boards. Finally, counties like Sanpete began hiring doctors to oversee their fledgling health boards as funds became available. 

Just four months into his job as a county quarantine physician, Dr. Andrews received a call to visit the small town of Sterling, Utah, to check in on a young seventeen-year-old patient named Lester Thompson. Lester had recently returned home from working on the railroad in Great Falls, Montana, when a rash appeared on his skin. His worried parents insisted on sending for a doctor to take a look. Reports of smallpox outbreaks in neighboring states had people worried the contagion might appear in Utah. Dr. Andrews knew to be on the lookout for the telltale signs of smallpox, like inflamed, red rashes and stiff, painful pustules covering the skin. However, when Dr. Andrews arrived to check on Lester Thompson, his symptoms didn’t seem at all like those that the young doctor had recently studied in medical school. Lester’s rash was light and mild, and his skin exhibited no signs of oncoming pustules. The mildness of the disease caused Dr. Andrews to suspect that Lester likely had a simple case of chickenpox. So, he told the Thompson family there was no need for strict quarantine and went on his way, intending to return in a few days to check on his patient’s condition.  

When Dr. Andrews returned to Sterling a few weeks later to visit with Lester Thompson, he discovered that the young man’s symptoms were not those of chickenpox after all but were the symptoms of a mild form of smallpox. Since the Thompson family had not been instructed to quarantine during the most contagious stages of the disease, it quickly spread throughout the community. By the time smallpox was properly identified, the disease was too widespread throughout Sterling to quarantine any single family. Dr. Andrews, with the support of the county commission and State Board of Health, recommended the entire town be quarantined until he could determine the disease had run its course. 

Unfortunately, it was too late. Only a few days after Sterling began its weeks-long quarantine, news of other infected patients started to pop up in neighboring towns. By November 1899, cases of smallpox were reported in communities throughout Utah. 

The State Board of Health recommended immediately closing schools and churches to help slow the spread. Upon their recommendation, Dr. Andrews promptly began administering vaccines to the people of Sterling and encouraged citizens in nearby towns to take preventive measures to inoculate themselves against the spreading disease. Dr. Andrews, like many doctors, knew that the vaccine against smallpox was the most effective way to prevent the deadly effects of the disease. 

Dr. Andrews requests $40 from Gunninson City council for the purchase of vaccines.
Gunnison Town Meeting Minutes – January 19, 1900. Series 26395

By January of 1900, schools had been closed for over a month. Local officials were under a lot of pressure to get students back into the classroom. Just before schools were set to reopen, the State Board of Health, with the support of local school boards, issued an order requiring students and teachers to receive smallpox vaccinations prior to being allowed to return to school. 

Dr. Andrews worked hard during the smallpox epidemic to promote the virtues of vaccination as the only effective means to prevent severe cases. But voluntary vaccination numbers stayed low, and many local health boards felt that compulsory vaccination was the only reliable way to achieve the necessary immunity levels to protect the community. Dr. Andrews was continually finding himself up against virulent misinformation, as citizens claimed that forced vaccination of young, healthy patients caused the need to amputate the inoculated arms. Dr. Andrews quickly quashed these rumors of vaccination amputations and did what he could to make sure news of vaccine successes was widely shared. 

When Dr. Andrews heard the news that the local school in his hometown of Gunnison was allowing students to attend school without proof of vaccination, he had reached his wit’s end. Taking the most extreme measures he could think of to enforce the local board of health’s compulsory vaccination ordinance, Dr. Andrews decided to have Fredrick Ludvigson, the school board trustee for the Gunnison Public Schools, arrested for violation of the order. Ludvigson appeared in the Justice Court on February 11, 1901, but because of growing anti-vaccination sentiment amongst county and town officials, the Sanpete County attorney dropped the case against Ludvigson. The State Legislature was taking up the issue of compulsory vaccination in that year’s legislative session, and every sign pointed to the legislature overturning all local compulsory vaccination orders. After his defeat in the Justice Court, Dr. Andrews resigned his position as quarantine doctor, stating in his resignation, “those who desire protection may find it; those who do not, who understand the needs better than I, can certainly best protect themselves.” The State Legislature did overturn the State Board of Health’s compulsory vaccination orders in the 1901 legislative session; after resigning his position, Dr. Andrews later left for California to continue practicing medicine.

Town of Gunnison v. Fredrick Ludvigson. Sanpete County Justice Docket 1897-1920. Series 26740