A blog about living in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

History: Diphtheria in Matawan, 1910

Horse blood once produced diphtheria antitoxin

This Thanksgiving, we can be grateful that diphtheria is a thing of the past in our community. One hundred years ago today, the front page of The Matawan Journal ran the obituary of 20-year old Alfred Clark of Matawan, who had died of pneumonia. The paper reported that Mr and Mrs George W Clark were "greatly afflicted" after a month of illness and death among their children due to a diphtheria outbreak. Their 3-year old Stanley had died at the end of October 1910, and 18-year old Delia (Cordelia) was currently sick. To top it off, the funeral couldn't be held at the Clark home due to a health quarantine.

The 1910 Federal Census for New Jersey taken 3 May 1910 showed George W (42) and Mary E (35) Clark living on Morristown Road in Matawan Borough, along with children George W Jr (19), Alfred J (18), Cordelia M (17), Annie C (12), Myron E (10), and Stanley H (4).  At the time of the census, George and Mary had been married 20 years. Only six of the mother's eight children were still living, not including the deaths that took place in October and November. George was occupied as a tile presser at a tile factory.

The first successful vaccine against diphtheria wasn't produced until 1913. Before that, antitoxins derived from horses were administered and breathing tubes inserted in patients to facilitate breathing as their air passages closed. In the 1920's, even after a vaccine was available, up to 200,000 annual US cases of diphtheria resulted in as many as 15,000 annual deaths, mostly children.

Fifty-two years ago, a 6-year old Cliffwood student contracted the disease, according to a front page article in The Red Bank Journal of 23 December 1958. Neither he nor any of his siblings had been inoculated and were therefore immediately quarantined by officials. Today, with routine inoculation of children and the prevalence of antibiotics, the incidence of death by diphtheria has become rare.


Post a Comment