Researchers Helping Archivists: Smallpox in Texas

Sometimes posts for this blog include new historical research by our staff.  Sometimes it is used as a way to promote certain collections.  Sometimes our posts are just meant to be fun.  For this post, we wanted to discuss some of the ways in which researchers interact with the archives and must draw conclusions based on information that is found in the collections and the information that is not.

In December 2021, a researcher named Lanny Ottosen with the Travis County Historical Commission in Austin, Texas reached out to us looking for information about the Texas smallpox epidemic of 1917.  While the archives certainly have collections related to the Daughters’ history in Texas, none of us are Texas residents immersed in detailed Texas history, and none of us were familiar with the state’s smallpox epidemic. 

The initial responses that we sent did not contain an enormous amount of information.  A few of the published, formal histories of the hospital included a paragraph about the smallpox epidemics.  One described how a few Daughters of Charity ventured the seven miles north of Austin to work at the “pest camp,” a then-common term for a quarantine sites, and listed the Daughters who “probably worked at the camp.”  While it is good that this information was noted, it was far from the empirical accounts that either we or Mr. Ottosen were looking for, and the “probably” does not inspire the greatest accuracy in the information.  There were, however, five letters describing the smallpox epidemic in the special service collection related to such outbreaks, four from Sister Ursula Fenton to the Provincial from March-May 1917 and one from Sister Lucia Beil from May 1917 with eyewitness accounts of nursing at the camp.  Sister Ursula’s first letter even went into detail about death rates in the camp and the city at large and the first names of Sisters who went to nurse there.

Sister Ursula Fenton to Sister Catherine Sullivan, March 22, 1917

Mr. Ottosen was able to confirm that these letters matched the newspaper clippings he had discovered.  He then asked about any photos of the smallpox camps of 1917 or the more famous Spanish flu camps of 1918, the latter of which we were well aware of the in the collection and happily passed on to him.  He then asked another question that stumped us a little, as he asked about entries in the patient registers.  These are large bound volumes from the early days of Seton Hospital noting the names of patients and their diagnoses.

For being such a large epidemic, there were only two entries for smallpox in March 1917.  However, the second entry contained a key clue as to the reason for this lack of information.  The comment on the entry reads “Transferred to P.H.,” presumably meaning pest house.  No further smallpox cases appear throughout the rest of 1917.

We are left to make an interpretation of history based not only on what is included in the records, but also based on what is missing from the records.  We know that there were extensive cases of smallpox, nursed by the Daughters of Seton Hospital, but they do not appear in the patient registers.  We have deduced that, after a certain point, when the city and county began to ramp up their public health measures, the quarantine sites had their own patient registers, which, to date, have not been found.

Mr. Ottosen published his extensive research on the Travis County Pest Camps through the Travis County Historical Commission blog:  We thank him for his assistance in writing this post and for his approval of the use of his name related to his research requests and to this post. 

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Filed under Austin, Texas, Epidemics

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