'Scraped' somewhere else: the debutantes and the doctors

In Brooklyn, New York, during a smallpox epidemic of 1893-1894, public health authorities undertook vaccination of both adults and schoolchildren. The practice of vaccinating children was already in place in Brooklyn, and so the team of vaccinators sent out to schools checked the children’s upper arm for evidence of existing vaccination in the shape of a recent scar left by the process (which involved scraping the skin before applying a preparation containing cowpox). If there was no evidence of recent vaccination, the child was given the vaccination. They encountered a particular conundrum when they attended the schools serving Brooklyn’s élite. As a scar on the upper arm would mar the appearance of the daughters of the élite when wearing sleeveless dresses as debutantes, and the girls had received their vaccinations elsewhere on their bodies. This required women doctors to be dispatched from the health department in order to check for the existence of vaccination scars in places where visiting male vaccinators could not access in anything like a seemly manner. This occurrence was reported upon in both the New York Herald and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in late March 1894, and James Colgrove reports on the events in his study of the effect of public health efforts to combat the 1894 smallpox epidemic in New York and Brooklyn, NY, and of legal cases taken to challenge methods of enforcement of vaccination during this period, on efforts to control disease and public perceptions thereof (2004: 364).

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 31 March 1894 reports on one particular incident of vaccinator-thwarting that occurred on the previous day. When male Health Board vaccinator, Dr Fitzgerald, attempted to examine older girls in Public School no. 16, where ‘the children of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families of the eastern district attend,’ the older girls left school early rather than wait for the vaccinator to return from another school.

It was remarked by the children that some of the younger and prettier teachers, whose arms are not spoiled by vaccination marks, although they are vaccinated just the same, dismissed their classes some time before the usual hour of closing. Some of the pupils got out at 2:45, others even earlier, and the teachers were away almost as soon as they.

In the highest class are a number of girls, 16 or over, and they united in saying that Dr Fitzgerald would be thwarted. Libbie Lowrie of Keap street and Annie Thomas, who lives on Lee avenue, near Wilson street, both declared they would leave school rather than submit to the examination.

At 3:30 promptly the classes which had been detained, were dismissed and as the girls trooped outside they met Dr. Fitzgerald, who had just arrived. They surrounded the doctor, some laughed at him, others guyed him, while still others said that thy were glad he was late and hoped never to see him again.

Neither Cologrove nor the Brooklyn Daily Eagle confirm exactly where the ‘scraping’ had taken place in these exceptional cases.

References for this section:

Colgrove J. (2004) ‘Between persuasion and compulsion: Smallpox control in Brooklyn and New York, 1894-1902’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 78(2):349-78. doi: 10.1353/bhm.2004.0062. PMID: 15211052.                 

'Modest Girls, Horrid Doctors', New York Herald, 30 March 1894, p. 8. 

'The Girls Fooled the Doctor', Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 31 March 1894, p. 1. (You can access the article here)