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News & Views of Phillips Since 1976
Saturday May 18th 2024

With No Vaccines and Antibiotics Thousands Died of Diphtheria

Vaccines and antibiotics have saved countless lives

Tales from
Pioneers and Soldiers
Memorial Cemetery

216th in a Series

By SUE HUNTER WEIR

More than 800 people buried in the Cemetery, almost 670 of them children, died from diphtheria, a disease that has for the most part disappeared. It was a particularly cruel disease, one that often claimed two or more children of a family’s children within days of each other. Parents stood by watching their children struggling to breathe. So-called doctors and healers claimed to have liniments, ointments, and blood purifiers that guaranteed a 100% chance of a cure but it wasn’t true. There were no antibiotics, no vaccinations, nothing in the way of a cure.

Fredricka Renlie, the beautiful little girl second from left, died from diphtheria on July 21, 1914. She was ten years old. She was one of more than 670 children buried in Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery who died from diphtheria. PHOTO: Renlie family

Diphtheria, a highly contagious disease, was spread through coughs, sneezes, and occasionally touch. People who lived in close quarters were particularly vulnerable. It was so frightening that the Mpls. City Health Department reported the number of new cases in the local papers every day. They also reported the addresses of infected households, and the Health Department often posted signs on doors warning people to stay away. The only known way to stop the spread was through quarantine and isolation.
E. L. Allen’s wife, Hattie, was 36 when she died on May 15, 1875. Their one-year-old daughter, Mary, died from membrane croup on the same day that her mother died. Croup’s symptoms are almost identical to and often confused with diphtheria. Sarah, the daughter who was born the day before her mother, died ten days later on May 25th. On May 27th, the Minneapolis Tribune reported that the couple’s two remaining sons, six-year-old Eddie and three-year-old Willie had diphtheria but their doctor held out hope that Eddie, while gravely ill, would recover. He didn’t. Eddie died on May 29, 1875. Willie recovered but within less than two weeks, four of the six members of his family had died.


There are about 50 other families who lost two or more children within days of each other. Six families, including the Allens, each lost three children. In 1874 the Stomprud family lost three children in less than two weeks: Hana, aged 10 on September 21st, and four-year-old Harry and seven-month-old Arnt both on October 3rd. In 1888, the Hatlestad family lost 23-month-old Theodora and five-year-old Eliza on February 10th. Tina, Theodora’s twin sister, died on March 6th. The family lost another daughter, Mabel, to cholera infantum two years later. In 1890, the Leitzman family lost five-year-old Caroline on January 21st, eleven-year-old Carrie on January 27th and eight-year-old Charles on January 29th. In July of that year, the Seidler family lost ten-year-old Fredrick on July 25, five-year-old Willie on July 31st and seventeen-year-old Daniel on August 7th. Ellen Frykman, aged ten, died on May 8, 1895; her sister Esther died on May 18th, aged eight, and three-year-old Mabel died on June 8th. Their families’ grief and heartache are unimaginable.


In 1891, the City’s Health Department came under heavy criticism when Lillian Stanchfield, aged 14, died. Her cousin had been visiting the Stanchfield family when he came down with diphtheria. He stayed with Lillian’s family and she was sent to stay with her cousin’s family while he recovered. A doctor declared him cured and the two children went back to their respective families. The Stanchfield home was said to have been disinfected and fumigated but Lillian got sick and died a few days after she arrived home. A story in the Minneapolis Tribune published an article that criticized physicians and the Health Department for lax enforcement of rules for sanitizing homes. In some cases, families were left to take care of it on their own; in others, Health Department staff were said to have done the work haphazardly. After more than one hundred years, it isn’t possible to say whether that criticism had any merit.


The big breakthrough in preventing diphtheria began in the 1920s when a vaccine became available. By 1940, the vaccine was widely used, and antibiotics were available to treat infections. While it is still possible for people to get diphtheria today, it is highly unlikely that they will.


When you’re thinking about things to be grateful for, add the development of vaccines and antibiotics to your list—they have saved countless lives.

Note: The Cemetery is closed for the season and will reopen on April 15, 2024.

Sue Hunter Weir is chair of Friends of the Cemetery, an organization dedicated to preserving and maintaining Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery. She has lived in Phillips for almost 50 years and loves living in such a historic community.

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