In 1947, a rug importer named Eugene LaBar came to Manhattan on a bus from Mexico. A few days later, he checked into a hospital where he learned he had smallpox and that he'd spread it throughout the city. Over the next two weeks, the NYC health commissioner convinced 5 million people to get vaccinated. Historian Jean Ashton helped curate an exhibit at the New York Historical Society about the scare. She talks to Brooke about why the campaign worked and what's changed today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a trailer for The Killer That Stalked New York, a 1950s ripped-from-the-headlines film about – vaccinations.
NARRATOR: On a November day in 1947, without either gun nor knife, one person was able to bring terror to the hearts of eight million people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Smallpox really had come to Manhattan, sparking a stunningly successful vaccination campaign. In Hollywood’s version, the carrier was a beautiful blonde diamond smuggler. In real life, says the New York Historical Society’s Jean Ashton, he was a rug importer named Eugene.
JEAN ASHTON: A man named Eugene Le Bar who came up on a bus from Mexico and wandered around the city and then felt awful, and put himself into Bellevue Hospital where they discovered he had smallpox.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the government then had two options, compel people to get vaccinated, which there was a precedent for, or persuade them.
JEAN ASHTON: Well, yes. It also tried to track down all of the people that Le Bar had been in contact with, but that was laborious and not completely successful. So yes, they chose to ask people to be voluntarily vaccinated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Part of this campaign of persuasion involved what appears to be one of the most [LAUGHS] passive-aggressive, bordering-on-insulting public information campaigns on the radio that there ever was.
[SMALLPOX MESSAGE, 1947 CLIP]:
DR. ISRAEL WEINSTEIN: Those people who are intelligent and who won’t take a chance and who realize the importance of vaccination, they, for the most part, have gone to their physicians and to the clinics and have been protected. Now we come to those who are more reluctant, who are slower, some who don’t realize the necessity of vaccination.
JEAN ASHTON: That’s really funny. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Yeah, but how effective was his appeal to the stupid people out there? [LAUGHS]
JEAN ASHTON: Well, it was extremely effective. In two weeks, 5 million people were vaccinated, and in the following two weeks another million and a half were vaccinated. So there were only a million and a half [LAUGHING] who were slow or reluctant, I guess.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it turned out there were only what, 12 –
JEAN ASHTON: Twelve cases of smallpox. And, as a result, smallpox was effectively knocked out of the city of New York. There was never another case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why wasn’t there a movement of vaccine skeptics?
JEAN ASHTON: Well, there’ve always been vaccine skeptics. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was always an objection to interfering with God’s will or putting a disease into the body, even before anybody understood anything about germs or viruses. And that has maintained; it’s – there are always a number of people today certainly who distrust any kind of vaccination.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But why wasn’t there an effective movement of smallpox vaccine skeptics?
JEAN ASHTON: Well, I think there are several reasons. First, people that have actually seen smallpox in the middle of the 20th century, it was still around, and it’s a horrible disease. You were covered with oozing sores that left terrible scars. People went blind. There was a, a death rate that was considerable. Also, people had just gone through World War II. They were used to trusting the government. And they were used to being obedient. They stood in lines. Some historians say the whole of the Second World War [LAUGHS] entailed people standing in line.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you think we’re back in a cycle of vaccine skepticism today?
JEAN ASHTON: Part of it is communication through the Internet, where anyone who has a doubt about anything can communicate with many other people. Partly, many of the diseases that people are vaccinating with are a little more subtle than smallpox. But also, perhaps by the 1960s and the Vietnam era, people had less trust in government. And so, the combination of a lack of trust in government, a distrust of science, which seems, for some reason, to be rising in this country.
And also, nobody’s seen any of these diseases for a long, long time. If you see somebody suffering from a disease like polio, as I did when a child when we saw iron lungs and people who died, you were much more eager to take the risks of the vaccination.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you have to be burned on the stove before you learn to stay away?
JEAN ASHTON: At least you have to believe that that burn is gonna hurt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
JEAN ASHTON: Oh, you’re welcome.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jean Ashton is vice-president and library director of The New York Historical Society.