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Epidemics of 100 Years Ago

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

Past Epidemics in Longmeadow at the Doane Orphanage

The town of Longmeadow has dealt with epidemics before the COVID-19 pandemic changed our daily lives. We now have the advantage of modern medicine and science that helps us to understand diseases, and how to avoid and treat them. A hundred years ago, the doctors taking care of the children and employees at the Doane orphanage didn't have that advantage. The Doane orphanage was created by George and Lucy (Cook) Doane in 1902 at the corner of Longmeadow Street and Forest Glen Road. The orphanage closed in 1930, and the house no longer stands.

Doane Orphanage Paesiello Emerson Collection- Longmeadow Historical Society Archives

Sign from Longmeadow Historical Society collection

Over the years, the orphanage was affected by several pandemics. In 1908, diphtheria caused the house to be put into quarantine. A notice in the newspaper noted that "a thorough examination is being given to find, if possible, the source of the disease." Diphtheria is caused by bacteria, and was once a major cause of illness and death among children, especially the youngest. The fatality case rates for those five years old and under was a terrifying 20%. It is usually spread between people by direct contact or through the air, or by contaminated objects. A vaccine was developed in the 1920's, but not commonly used until the 1930's.

In August of 1913, a typhoid fever epidemic was reported at the Doane orphanage. Typhoid fever is also caused by a bacteria--a type of Salmonella, and is spread by eating or drinking contaminated food or water. Before the advent of antibiotics, typhoid fever had a fatality rate of 10-20%. Dr. Lyman A. Jones of North Adams made an investigation into the outbreak. Knowing the facts about transmission, Dr. Jones checked the water supply and milk supply and declared that were both eliminated as sources of the infection.

Springfield Daily News, Saturday, August 23, 1913

Later in August, the Springfield Union reported that two new cases of typhoid fever associated with the Doane house were found, bringing the total number of cases to 22. Dr. Jones reported on his progress with the investigation, stating that "of the 28 children recently in the orphanage, 22 have typhoid." By September, Dr. Jones made his final report to the state board of health. He systematically explained how he ruled out water, milk and food as sources, concluding that "it seems justifiable to conclude that the infection was introduced through some recently admitted child, or through some child returned from a visit, through some chance visitor or through some employee who was a carrier." While he did not identify a specific source of the infection, he made several recommendations:

Springfield Union, September 25, 1913

The first typhoid fever vaccine available in the U.S. was developed by Army physician Frederick Russell in 1909.

1914 found a new infection at the orphanage--scarlet fever. Also caused by a bacteria, group A streptococcus, it is usually spread by people coughing or sneezing. No vaccine is available, but the infection is usually treatable with antibiotics. Before antibiotics were available, long term complications from scarlet fever could include kidney disease, rheumatic heart disease, and arthritis. (The author's father had scarlet fever as a child and failed his physical exam to be a navy pilot in WWII because of valvular heart disease). At the time of this outbreak in Longmeadow, scarlet fever was a leading cause of death in children. In March of 1914, there were 13 cases of scarlet fever reported among the 32 children at the orphanage. There was much concern, as the children had attended crowded church services shortly before being diagnosed. Strict quarantine was the only available response.

Evening News, San Jose, California, March 26, 1914

Epidemics have been a part of life forever, but thankfully, we have found medicines and technologies to help us prevent and treat these diseases that were so dangerous to our ancestors.


1. Genealogybank

2.The Doane Orphanage, May 2009 Town Crier article by Linda Abrams

3. Longmeadow Historical Society collections

Contributed by Betsy McKee, LHS Board Member

Originally published April 22, 2021

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