Sunday, May 1, 2016

Diphtheria: The Plague Among Children

How many times has a family historian seen diphtheria as a cause of death on an ancestors' death certicate? One morning I saw it...yet again. This time for Pearl Ivy Muir, my first cousin twice removed, who died in 1922 at the age of 7, and thought when the heck did they develop a vaccine. I learned after a bit of research, had little Pearl been stricken with diphtheria just four years later, she may have lived.

The first reported diphtheria epidemic occurred in 1613 in Spain. That year became known as "The Year of Strangulations." The disease swept through New England in 1735. It wasn't until 1883 that the club-shaped bacterium was identified and named Klebs-Loeffler bacterium. In 1895 the M. K. Mulford Co. of Philadelphia began production and testing of an antitoxin. By 1905 scientific papers began to be published, which detailed the best known ways to treat diphtheria. However, several children died after being treated with antitoxin and the resulting fear slowed the progress in treating the disease. Bela Schick developed a test to detect preexisting immunity to diphtheria in an exposed person. He advocated only those who had not previously been exposed to the disease should be vaccinated, thereby reducing the number of people who needed the live vaccine. Dr. Schick, with the support of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., waged a 5-year campaign to educate parents about the dangers of diphtheria and why early diagnosis was important. A vaccine was developed in the 1920s and as early as 1924 deaths as a result of diphtheria began to decline.

Children were most vulnerable to diphtheria. In 1925 an outbreak in Nome, Alaska, made national news as the antitoxin was rushed to the remote city by dog sled. The event became known as The Great Race of Mercy. It is now celebrated annually by the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Balto, the lead sled dog became a famous canine celebrity and news coverage helped spur the inoculation campaign that dramatically reduced the threat of diphtheria.

Gunner Kaasen with Balto; courtesy of Wikipedia

Last year in the United States no cases of diphtheria were reported[1]; it is routinely prevented by vaccine and treated with antibiotics. However, it was once a major cause of illness among children. The year before Pearl's death, the U.S. recorded 206,000 cases, resulting in 15,520 deaths. Effective immunization against diphtheria became widely available in the 1920s, just a few years after Pearl died.

A version of this post first appeared on the Robert Muir Family blog on 7 April 2016, which is the publishing platform for the multi-volume book, Descendants of Robert Muir (c1800-1869). The original version of this post will be published in an electronic book, Volume VII: James Muir (1848-1926) Descendants in June 2016.

[1]A three-year-old girl died in March of this year in Belgium.


  1. A very interesting article, Schalene. I know that my aunt Edith had diptheria in the 1930's and I can recall conversations about how the house was fumigated, I think, and how worried my grandparents were about her. She fortunately survived and lived to a great age. I knew very little about the illness, so thank you for enlightening me.

    Family History Fun

    1. It's difficult to imagine being in a home that was quarantined but that happened often with contagious diseases. They would also burn bedding and clothes, but fumigating a house! I'm glad your aunt Edith recovered and had a long life -- it's the best revenge for serious illness.

  2. Very interesting. For me it seems that many of my ancestors died of TB and I haven't noticed diphtheria, but now I need to go back and double check to see.

    1. My paternal grandmother's father came to the U.S. from Scotland. When researching his ancestors in Scotland, I discovered they were all coal miners. The women seemed to die of TB and the men from TB or what we now call Black Lung Disease. TB is a truly awful disease and was difficult to cure even when they started to develop medicine to combat it because it would mutate. I wrote about it once: