In 1877 there were few cases reported of the diphtheria in Sleepy Eye and its vicinity. Many thought there was no cause to be alarmed or to have an immediate concern about it. The cases following were divesting resulting came later, yet many still believed that the disease wasn’t “catchy” therefore, no quarantine measures were taken. This probably accounts, in some degree at least, for the spread of diphtheria in the years immediately succeeding 1877. Later, it was generally believed that weather conditions caused, or at least aided, the rapidity with which the disease swept over the town and country around Sleepy Eye, for none would yet concede that it could be carried from one home to another.
During the years 1878 and 1879 the number of fatal cases increased to such an extent that the residents of both town and country began to doubt the correctness of their previously formed opinions in the matter. The next year they became really alarmed; for cases were increasing by leaps and bounds and none of the doctors seemed to be able to save a child afflicted with what was then called black diphtheria. By 1880 the plague had reached the epidemic stage. People had at last come to realize the serious nature of the situation, and with this realization came the conviction of the utter helplessness.
A few patients apparently recovered from diphtheria, only to die suddenly of heart failure days or even weeks later. In these cases of heart weakness, the physicians, when they could be reached in time, were able to help and to save a few. But to parents and relatives, the death of a child after strong hopes of recovery had been aroused and almost ripened into certainty was, if possible, even more tragic than the swiftly certain outcome of other fatal cases.
In the early stages of the epidemic, it was argued, apparently with good reason, that the disease, especially in its most virulent form, was a product of, or at least was aggravated by, insanitary conditions in the homes. It soon developed beyond the possibility of doubt that the very neatest families living in commodious home in both town and country suffered as much as those who lived in small squalid, and poorly ventilated hovels. The cause of the disease thus became the puzzle of the day to both physicians and laymen of the locality.
There were no school nurses at Sleepy Eye in those gloomy, heartbreaking days. Only two or three women made any pretense of knowing something of the art of nursing. These women worked like beavers; but for the most part the parents of the stricken youngsters nursed them as best they could. They were helped only by the doctors, who literally rode night and day, from house to house. The physicians worked with the knowledge that they could do little more than sympathize, offer suggestions as to caring for patients, and apply the best-known remedies, always hoping that the patients’ own vitality would in some miraculous way work a cure. But the physician’s big job was to keep the courage of the parents, to cheer his patients, and – perhaps incidentally, but most important of all – to keep up his own courage. This was no easy task.
As the scourge advanced in its course, practically unhindered by man or climatic conditions, some families were left with one, two, or rarely three children. Others were left without any. Fred Gerboth and his wife, who lived two and one-half miles east of Sleepy Eye, had a family of six children, a boy and five very pretty and intelligent girls. The boy was about sixteen years old; the girls ranged from thirteen or fourteen down to three or four. The Gerboths were very neat and intelligent people. Gerboth was a candidate for the state legislature. Before he moved to the farm he had kept a store in Iberia, which in its day was a lively, if small, village about four miles south and one mile east of Sleepy Eye. The diphtheria suddenly came into the home of the Gerboths. In a matter of days they had laid away all five girls at a time. Only the boy was left to them. The tragedy so affected Gerboth’s mind that he was obliged to withdraw from the campaign. He never entirely recovered from the shock.
Louise Hanson lived southeast of town about five miles. He and his wife had five children. The scourge came in and took all five. IT was a sad sight to see Hanson driving up the road every day or two on his way to the cemetery, along with his dead. The children died between August 26 and September 5. There were no funeral services or precessions for the little ones- just simple interments with little or no ceremony. By this time people were thoroughly frightened and were wondering how the epidemic would end and when. Voluntarily, families kept to themselves as much as was possible; but the precaution was like locking the door after the horse was gone.
Few, if any, families with children escaped the ravages of the plague entirely. Some had the disease in light form, however, and they became immune to later attacks. The epidemic reached its peak in 1880. Fatalities gradually diminished as the people upon whom the germs could work were reduced in number by death and immunization. The course of the disease, even in its lightest form, seemed to prepare the blood of the patient to resist successful all future attacks of the germs for long periods of time, if not for life. In epidemic form, diphtheria was practically unknown in Sleepy Eye after 1883. Later cases were sporadic and did not spread with epidemic speed, even among children who were born after the epidemic of 1880 and among newly arrived settlers. Later outbreaks probably failed to spread because quarantine laws had became enacted and were fairly well obeyed by people who had learned a costly lesson.
Doubtless other parts of the country suffered more or less from this nemesis of child life during the late seventies and succeeding years. It was estimated that in Sleepy Eye and its vicinity along between eighty and ninety deaths were caused by diphtheria during and immediately preceding the period of its epidemic stage.