What New York did in 1947 to evade an epidemic

In February 1947, an American importer named Eugene Le Bar boarded a bus in Mexico with his wife; the two were bound for New York City. That evening, he developed a headache and neck pain. Two days later, a rash developed.

After arriving in Manhattan on March 1, the Le Bars registered at a Midtown hotel.

“Although he was not feeling well, he did a little sightseeing and also walked through one of the large department stores,” explained a New York Times article published later that year and written by Commissioner of Health Israel Weinstein.

Four days later, Le Bar was in Bellevue Hospital, unsure of what he had. He raged with fever and was covered in dark red bumps, similar to chicken pox.

He was transferred to another hospital, Willard Parker Hospital at East 16th Street and the East River (below, in 1935), which treated communicable diseases. He died there on March 10, and it was only during an autopsy did doctors discover he had smallpox—the fearsome scourge that killed up to a third of victims until a vaccine was developed in the 19th century.

Le Bar’s case was the first appearance of smallpox in New York City since 1939. “The occasional case of smallpox had been seen in the area for decades since the last big outbreak in 1875, which had killed 2,000 New Yorkers,” stated a 2004 edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

This new case wasn’t an isolated one. It quickly spread to two other people, one at Bellevue and the other at Willard Parker.

From there, about a dozen more people who’d been in contact with the first three smallpox victims developed the disease.

Realizing that the outbreak had to be stopped, city officials sprang into action. First, all hospital staffers and anyone who may have had contact with the infected individuals were vaccinated or revaccinated, explained this post from Virology Blog.

And on April 4, “facing the possibility of a genuine epidemic, Mayor William O’Dwyer ordered that virtually the entire city, or 6.3 million people, be vaccinated or revaccinated, a process that for three weeks caused enormous lines to snake around every hospital, police precinct, and 60 special health stations,” recalled the New York Daily News in 2001.

New York didn’t have enough doses of the vaccine on hand, so O’Dwyer met with the heads of pharmaceutical companies and asked for their help manufacturing millions of vaccines, which they accomplished.

“When a second person died from the disease on April 13, the Mayor asked all 7.8 million New Yorkers to be vaccinated,” stated Virology Blog.

“At this announcement, the city shifted into crisis mode, with contributions by police, fire, health departments, and hospitals. The campaign slogan was ‘Be sure, be safe, get vaccinated!’”

An estimated 5-6 million people were vaccinated in the city until early May, after which the campaign was halted because the outbreak appeared to be contained.

Is there anything here to learn from to tackle the coronavirus pandemic? I’m not sure; it was a different time, and a vaccine already existed. Let’s hope coronavirus is contained by May, just like smallpox was in 1947.


[Top image: Vaccine line in Morrisania, Bronx, by Life magazine; second image: New York Daily News; third image: NYPL; fourth image: New York Daily News; fifth image: New York Times; sixth image: Broadway showgirls getting jabbed, Life magazine; seventh image: New York Times]

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19 Responses to “What New York did in 1947 to evade an epidemic”

  1. Mykole Mick Dementiuk Says:

    All we can do is hunker down. My pantry is packed, a wealth of reading material is at hand, the world is at pause… What new changes will come about? That’s for us to patiently discover. Peace…

  2. TakeForwardWBAI Says:

    THANK YOU! Great post and compilation of photos!

    Mitchel Cohen Brooklyn Greens / Green Party

  3. Antoinette Truglio Martin Says:

    So interesting. To note is that these pandemics do occur and we must all hunker down and comply.

  4. petey Says:

    i’d never heard of Willard Parker hospital. so many smaller hospitals now gone: here in my own neighborhood there were Misericordia Hospital, the French Hospital, Doctors’ Hospital (where my mother worked and my father had his last stay), others too.

  5. jhgrfed Says:

    Now compare to HIV/AIDS

  6. mitzanna Says:

    The last photo looks like Lucille Ball and at left Desi Arnaz getting vaccinated.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I agree! The Life caption said they were cast members of Oklahoma! and Carousel, but who knows?

  7. Lorinda Says:

    Willard Parker was an Infectious Diseases Hospital run by the Department of Health. Dr. Parker was a prominent Infectious Diseases doctor of the 19th century. It also treated polio victims and for a time Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary. Bellevue and others were more for acute care. It was located at 16th street and the East River, more recently Con Edison. Small Pox vaccines in one form or another were available from the mid 1700s on courtesy of Dr. Edward Jenner who recognized that Milk Maids had developed a form of immunity from cows that had cow pox. He realized that it might work for small pox as it was in the same family.

  8. Paul Payton Says:

    Lesson learned: swift decisive action taken from the highest appropriate level possible is the way to do it. This current crisis could have been figured out weeks ago. It wasn’t, and we’re all suffering now. Thank you for this history lesson.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You’re welcome—I wonder if people were more afraid of diseases back then and therefore more compliant. Vaccines and antibiotics were relatively new, and most people could remember the days of getting sick and not having any remedy, so people died.

  9. shelter in place, the first 14 days / searching for purpose + meaning, through learning + reflecting…. 100+ things to do, think about, eat, watch + make… | Cari Borja Says:

    […] 13. Ephemeral New York / “What New York did in 1947 to evade an epidemic”  […]

  10. David H Lippman Says:

    I wish my father and grandparents were alive…I’d ask them about this. Grandpa was a pharmacist….owned a drugstore at 186th Street and Amsterdam, which is now the Yeshiva University book store.

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