Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tragedy Strikes

Diphtheria: an acute infectious disease caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae. It is spread by respiratory droplets of an infected person or someone who carries the bacteria but has no symptoms. It can also be spread by contaminated objects or foods. The bacteria most commonly infects the nose and throat. The throat infection "causes a gray to black, tough, fiber-like covering, which can block the airways...Once infected,dangerous substances called toxins, produced by the bacteria, can spread through your bloodstream to other organs, such as the heart, and cause significant damage" (PubMed Health). 

At the beginning of September 1861, my 3rd great-grandparents, Elias & Rebecca (Williamson) Carter, had eleven children. By the end of the month, they had only six children. The household was struck by a diphtheria epidemic and five young daughters died in between September 13th and September 30th. Emily Jane (age 14) and Julia Elizabeth (age 11) died on September 13th followed by Helen Louise (age 7) who died on the 20th. Sarah Lillie (age 9) and Anna Grace (age 5) died on the 26th and 30th, respectively. 

Once can only imagine what life must have been like in the household during that month. Two older daughters survived. The oldest, Frances Ann was 23 and may have been married by that time. Mary Elizabeth was 18 and surely helped care for her ailing sisters. There were four sons including my 2nd great-grandfather Augustus Mellen. He was twenty at the time and would soon be going off to fight in the Civil War. Edward Lawson was 16, Timothy Cullen was 15 and John Herbert was 7. John was the twin of Helen.

"Throat distemper" is what diphtheria was often called in the death records of the 17th and 18th centuries. It was particularly lethal among children under the age of ten. In addition to local outbreaks, New England suffered a major regional outbreak between 1735-1740. Fortunately, today there are vaccines to prevent diseases like diphtheria that once took many lives each year. In the 1920s there were about 150,000 cases with about 13,000 fatalities annually (bacteriology.net). The diphtheria vaccine became available in 1926 and has been in widespread use since the 1940s. 

Ancestry.com. History of Bethel, formerly Sudbury, Canada, Oxford County, Maine, 1768-1890 : with a brief sketch of Hanover and family statis [database on-line]. Provo, UT: The Generations Network, Inc., 2005.
Original data: Lapham, William Berry,. History of Bethel, formerly Sudbury, Canada, Oxford County, Maine, 1768-1890 : with a brief sketch of Hanover and family statistics. Augusta, Me.: Press of the Maine Farmer, 1891. 

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