Deadly contagious diseases nearly forgotten today in the United States were a constant threat a century ago. In the fall of 1909, Bangor was particularly bothered by scarlet fever and typhoid fever. The city’s reaction, as reported in its two daily newspapers, helps us understand how far we’ve come in the fight against dread diseases.
The Prospect School, which was located on a section of Prospect Street between Harlow and Center that no longer exists, was closed for 10 days after three children came down with mild cases of scarlet fever, reported the Bangor Daily Commercial on Sept. 27. 1909. The children, who attended sub-primary through fifth grades in two rooms, were sent home. The school was fumigated. “No cases have been reported from any other school in the city and there is no danger of an epidemic,” said the newspaper.
The Center Street School was closed and fumigated next after three more cases were found, announced the Commercial on Oct. 18. There were a few other cases of scarlet fever scattered around the city, but there was no epidemic, said the newspaper. The actions of the school board and doctors were taking care of things.
In early November, city authorities announced they also were battling a far more dangerous disease — typhoid fever. Not since the spring of 1904, when hundreds of people were sickened from drinking Penobscot River water and nearly 50 died, had the city seen such an outbreak.
The city’s board of health issued an advisory on both the typhoid and scarlet fever outbreaks reported in the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 4. Except for two instances, all the typhoid cases were confined to one neighborhood, it said. The board was investigating the source, which remained “obscure.”
In the meantime, the board recommended boiling drinking water and rinsing vegetables to be eaten raw under boiling water. Households in which the disease already existed should isolate patients’ dishes, boil their bedding and disinfect their “excreta” with a carbolic acid solution. Since flies spread the disease, they should be kept out of the house. This was back in the days when whole families were quarantined if a member became ill with certain contagious diseases.
Moving on to scarlet fever, the board said all children with sore throats “or … any kind of an eruption on any part of the body” should be taken to a doctor. Measles and chicken pox had similar symptoms to scarlet fever in the early stages.
That afternoon, the Commercial added more details to the rather sketchy health department advisory. About 20 people had been diagnosed with typhoid, said the newspaper. Nearly all of them lived in the area around the school. The board was planning to canvass the neighborhood in an effort to find out what the cases had in common.
Suspicion already surrounded the artesian well at the Longfellow School on Center Street. The school was located where the St. Joseph Hospital emergency department is today. Ironically, the digging of wells was supposed to protect people from typhoid and other dread diseases found in the Penobscot River, which was the city’s official water supply. Some families took their drinking water from the well at the Longfellow School and other wells around the city.
The next day, on Nov. 5, the two newspapers reported that the board had ordered the well closed for testing. Without exception, all of the typhoid victims had drunk water from the well. The infected area included Center Street between Montgomery and Poplar streets, upper Norfolk, Congress and Leighton streets, and upper Broadway. The number of cases might be as high as 30.
The sewage drain leading from the residence of Lawrence Rooney, where the disease first had been diagnosed, was going to be dug up and checked as well as the drain from the school. The Rooney home was located “opposite the Longfellow School.”
The first death, that of Mrs. F. O. Sawyer of Grant Street, was reported five days later. Her husband and little son also were ill. Anxiety was mounting. Several of the cases were critical.
Meanwhile, it had been determined that the schoolhouse drain and a nearby drain, presumably the Rooneys’, were in good condition, although officials still believed the well water was the cause of the outbreak. A rumor that a sewer pipe had been broken when the well was first drilled was unfounded, said the newspapers.
On Nov. 18, it was reported by the Commercial that the epidemic was getting worse. There were now 35 cases of typhoid in the city, mostly in the same area, according to John Goldthwait of the board of health. Many Bangoreans doubtlessly were boiling their water and scalding their raw vegetables.
The scarlet fever scare continued as well. One of the city’s largest elementary schools, the Palm Street School, was closed, said the Commercial on Nov. 18. (Some reports said it was being closed for the second time that fall because of the disease.) The teachers were “discouraged” at this 900-pupil school (soon to be renamed the Abraham Lincoln School) because of all the schoolwork that would have to be made up.
The source of the illness it turned out was a child from the same family from which a younger child had been diagnosed with scarlet fever at the Prospect Street School in September. After being quarantined for 37 days, the family had moved to the Palm Street School’s enrollment area, apparently bringing the disease with them.
Between March 1, 1909, and March 1, 1910, Bangor experienced 36 “mild cases” of scarlet fever and 56 cases of typhoid with three deaths, according to the report of the city’s board of health. There also were 14 “mild cases” of diphtheria. No mention was made of the many people who died of tuberculosis and other contagious diseases or of cancer or heart disease.
The city passed an ordinance to employ doctors to conduct regular medical check-ups of children in the schools to find illnesses before they got out of hand. By adopting such a procedure, Bangor “falls into line with the more important cities in the country,” said the Commercial on Nov. 10.
The exact cause of the typhoid outbreak remained uncertain. State officials failed to find any evidence of typhoid in the well water at the Longfellow School after three tests, it was announced in the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 24. The well would remain closed for the time being, however, to see if there were any more cases in the area. Officials still were convinced the well had been the source of the disease.
An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to him at email@example.com