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Smallpox epidemic of 1924–25 claimed the lives of 500 Minnesotans

smallpox poster
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Smallpox prevention poster distributed by the Minnesota Department
of Health c.1924.

Minnesota’s worst known encounter with smallpox came in 1924 and 1925. Five hundred people died — four hundred of them in the Twin Cities. Almost 90 percent of the Twin Cities deaths took place in Minneapolis.

Around the world and over the centuries, smallpox has killed millions. Early European explorers and conquerors brought it to the Americas. Some historians believe it killed up to 95 percent of the native people of what is now the United States. Whether it reached Minnesota before European settlement began is not known.

Smallpox comes in two varieties, one mild and one deadly (also called black, or virulent, or hemorrhagic.) In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the mild type was common in Minnesota and killed few people. The deadly type appeared in scattered outbreaks, also killing relatively few. The worst period had been 1871–1872, when 273 people died, but since then the average had fallen to less than fifteen deaths a year. People did not much fear it.

The first 1924 deaths took place in Duluth in January and were followed by more in Minneapolis in the last week of June. They raised little alarm. A few more people died over the summer. In the fall, when people began to huddle indoors, the disease spread: twenty-seven died in October, sixty-six in November, and 149 in December.

At the time, about 240,000 people lived in St. Paul and 410,000 in Minneapolis. Had the disease affected both cities’ populations equally, there would have been ninety-one deaths in St. Paul and 129 in Minneapolis. But at the end of 1924, 208 people had died in Minneapolis and only twelve in St. Paul.

Two factors explain the difference. First, Minneapolis had a higher population density. St. Paul and Minneapolis were about the same size in area, but Minneapolis fit 170,000 more people into an equivalent space. It had more flophouses, shelters, and boardinghouses, all of which pressed sometimes sickly people into close quarters. In these conditions, the airborne smallpox virus spread quickly.

Second, St. Paul’s public health system responded more efficiently to the crisis. Its workers were better trained, and they acted more quickly to quarantine victims and trace the sources of infection. Minneapolis public health officers, perhaps overwhelmed by the scope of their problem, acted less efficiently in training hospital workers, tracing sources of the virus, and warning schools, businesses, and families of danger when infection appeared. They also put smallpox victims in the public hospital, infecting new victims. St. Paul officials isolated as many of the ill as they could in a “pest house” far from the center of town.

State law blocked a sound public health response. An 1883 state law had required all school-age children to be vaccinated against smallpox. But in 1903, the legislature repealed that law and made compulsory child vaccination illegal. Although smallpox vaccination is almost 100 percent effective, public health officers had no power to make people protect themselves. They could recommend, but not mandate, the vaccine.

Starting in November 1924, both cities launched free vaccination campaigns. Once the deaths mounted, the frightened public jammed the vaccination centers. As reported in the Minneapolis Journal, as many as 17,000 got their skin scratches in a single day. By mid-December 1924—according to public health officials—some 210,000 people in St. Paul and 350,000 in Minneapolis had been vaccinated.

December was the worst month; 129 people died in Minneapolis alone. But by then the tide had turned. The disease had carried off the most vulnerable before mass vaccination took effect. Eighty-eight people died in January 1925 and thirty in February (all in Minneapolis). By late summer, the epidemic has passed.

The final toll of suffering was grim. St. Paul reported 855 smallpox cases and thirty-eight deaths, suggesting a 4.4 percent death rate. Minneapolis reported 1430 cases and 365 deaths, indicating a death rate almost six times as high (25.5 percent). Another 101 people died around the state. Though occasional deaths took place into the early 1940s, smallpox as an epidemic never returned.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ray Lewis on 03/11/2014 - 10:30 pm.

    Thank you Paul

    For both the history lesson with current parallels od state law mandating immunization and then making it illegal, and the MNopedia source.

    I hope you continue contributing articles like this and can only imagine what future historians will write about our “health reforms”.

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