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Smallpox epidemic hits Boro, Bulloch Co. in 1903
Bulloch History
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Note: The following is one of a series of columns looking at places and events of interest in Bulloch County history.


In July of 1898, a number of residents who lived in and around Swainsboro contracted small pox. It all began when one of Dr. Bell’s sons contracted the disease while in an Army camp, and escaped from the quarantine camp and returned home. 

Bulloch County Commissioner Hagin immediately sent Emanuel County Commissioner Warren a letter informing him “a 15-day quarantine of Swainsboro was now in place, and that no one from Swainsboro could attend the regional Teachers Institute in Statesboro the next week.” 

On March 6, 1903, the mayor and council of Statesboro created the position of city physician and health officer, and selected A.L.R. Avant as the man for the job. His challenge: prevent smallpox from ravaging the city. Everyone was to be vaccinated. 

Those who refused the vaccination and those diagnosed with the disease were placed in confinement. All public gatherings, including church services, were banned for several weeks. On March 6, 1903, the paper reported that only two cases of smallpox had been confirmed (J.F. Fields and J.G. Blitch). 

It explained that J.F. Fields, whose illness was first misdiagnosed as chickenpox rather than smallpox by doctors Sample and Mooney, had probably infected others. On March 13, 1903, the paper announced that the City Marshall Dempse Barnes was being dismissed for carelessness. 

It seems he had entered the house of J.G. Blitch, a violation of his own strict quarantine orders. Finally, an article was printed in the paper on March 27, 1903 in which City Health Officer Avant responded to a number of wild rumors. 

He assured residents that amongst other things, no one had had to have their arms amputated after receiving a smallpox vaccination. On Feb. 19, 1904, the local newspaper reported that, “Smallpox is reported pretty thick in some sections of the county.” 

It went on to say that the one confirmed case was someone who had not been vaccinated during the 1903 smallpox epidemic. On Feb. 23, 1904 Statesboro’s Mayor G.S. Johnston announced in the newspaper that all residents of Statesboro and the outlying areas must be vaccinated immediately, or suffer dire consequences. 

The last reported occurrence of this disease during that period took place during 1922. Three white persons had contracted the disease: Professor E.V. Hollis at the First District Agricultural School, the young son of W.L. Morrison of the Standard Oil Company and K.P. Davis, a machinist. 

The paper stated “as to the colored folk, a total of 17 suspicious cases had been identified and were being closely observed.”


Roger Allen is a local lover of history. Allen provides a brief look each week at the area's past. E-mail Roger at rwasr1953@gmail.com.