How New York City Handled Vaccinations During Another Infectious Outbreak: Smallpox in the 1940s

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Currents News Staff

In 1947, New York City Health Commissioner Israel Weinstein urged all New Yorkers to get vaccinated after an American businessman contracted smallpox during a trip from Mexico and later died in a New York City hospital, where others soon became infected.

“In 1947 there was a small but scary breakout of smallpox in New York City,” said Kent Sepkowitz, doctor and professor of infectious disease at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

The scare launched a city-wide scramble to keep New Yorkers safe from a deadly killer whose presence dates back 3,000 years. Dr. Sepkowitz, an infectious disease expert, studies outbreaks past and present. He says smallpox was an even bigger threat than COVID-19.

“Smallpox was a much more fatal disease if acquired and among survivors, it was quite disfiguring,” he told Currents News. “It could lead to blindness and a lot of other problems.”

Smallpox killed an estimated 300 million people in the first half of the 20th century alone. Thirty percent of those who contracted the disease died, which prompted the city to spring into full crisis mode.

“It was bad enough that the mayor and the Department of Health both decided that the entire city had to be vaccinated,” said Dr. Sepkowitz. “It was a city of about seven million-plus people at that time in 1947.”

Tens of millions of doses were distributed. Vaccinations were free and a coordinated public education campaign helped spread the word. Archivist Katie Ehrlich with Municipal Archives works with the valuable remnants of New York’s history, they’re pieces that tell the story of the time.

“The vaccination programs that the city implemented around the mid-20th century were really highly organized and kinda all hands on deck,” Ehrlich said. “[They were] setting up free health clinics, setting up points of contact where New Yorkers could go and get these vaccines. It was really targeted to specific populations, in terms of who the city thought was more, perhaps vulnerable, to these specific outbreaks.”

Less than a month later, millions of New Yorkers had been vaccinated –  and the public health emergency was declared over. Four to five million people in all – including part of the tristate area – were vaccinated over a two-month period.

“It was something to be proud of, you know,” said Dr. Sepkowitz. “It was New York style. It wasn’t you know, completely everyone behaving, but it was something that is a real achievement.

He said the success was a unifying, American moment.

“‘Let’s do this for America’ moment,” described Dr. Sepkowitz. “We were very much in a ‘taking orders is okay’ moment. That’s how you get things done.”