public health history

NYC Health in History: Smallpox Outbreak in 1947

On March 1st, 1947, Eugene Le Bar and his wife visited NYC after a 6-year stay in Mexico City. On March 5th, he was admitted to Bellevue Hospital but because of his rash was soon transferred to Willard Parker Hospital, a communicable disease hospital also in Manhattan. Diagnosed with a drug reaction, he died at the hospital a few days later. After two patients on the same floor as him were diagnosed with smallpox, an autopsy confirmed he died of smallpox. Le Bar’s hospital stay soon led to additional smallpox cases in Willard patients, and cases soon emerged at Bellevue hospital.

On April 4, 1947, these events led NYC Mayor William O'Dwyer to announce plans to vaccinate everybody in the city. Vaccination clinics were set up around the city at hospitals, health department clinics, police and fire stations, and schools. The city also set up 179 additional locations to be used for vaccinations that were open every day. Within days, long lines formed outside the clinics. In less than a month, more than 6,350,000 people were vaccinated against smallpox in NYC. Over 5,000,000 of those vaccinations took place in the first two weeks. By the end of the outbreak, a total of 12 patients were confirmed to have had smallpox.

Thanks the efforts of NYC, U.S. Public Health Service, community organizations, and local health providers, the outbreak was declared ended on April 24, 1947.

Find out more about the outbreak in an article written by then NYC Health Commissioner Israel Weinstein.

Learn more about NYC’s immunization requirements for children in daycare or schools and services offered at our walk-in immunization clinics.

Why It Took Decades of Blaming Parents Before We Banned Lead Paint

As with soda, demanding that all mechanisms of harm be completely understood before regulations are put in place is frightening.

Some died slow deaths. Others went into convulsions. Tens of thousands yet to be born were at risk of permanent damage. 

Lead paint initially seemed harmless. The lead pigment that lent color and texture to the oil that formed its base made up as much as 70 percent of a can of paint. As little as a thumbnail-sized chip, though, could send kids into convulsions. But that didn’t mean anyone was doing anything. And there was a reason.

Since the 1920s, the lead industry had organized to fight bans, restrictions, even warnings on paint-can labels. It had marketed the deadly product to children and parents, spreading the lie that lead paint was safe. For decades, paint ads appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, National Geographic, and other national magazines and local newspapers. Coloring books were handed out to children. The industry even sent Dutch Boy costumes to children on Halloween, and printed coloring books that showed children how to prepare it.

The lead industry even claimed that the problem was not with the paint but with the “uneducable Negro and Puerto Rican” parents who “failed” to stop children from placing their fingers and toys in their mouths.

(From The Atlantic)