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#85 The Norwich Smallpox Quarantine of 1912

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, This Week in History

SmallpoxCadet L.W. Smith had recently contracted an illness believed to be chicken pox while visiting his mother in Greenfield, Massachusetts. He was placed under “light quarantine” and nothing was thought of it until his roommate, Verner Belyea, began exhibiting clear smallpox symptoms a few days later.

The first vaccine for smallpox was introduced in 1796. Though it would not be eradicated worldwide until the 1970s, by the time of the outbreak at Norwich, the deadly disease was uncommon in the United States.

When Belyea was diagnosed, both students were immediately moved to a house on the outskirts of Northfield and given top notch medical treatment. They would go on to recover fully. But the impact on the university was just beginning.

When the news first broke, the Corps of Cadets was ordered to remain on campus until further notice, so as not to spread the disease in the surrounding community. Within 24 hours, Norwich had been placed under strict military quarantine. A campsite was set up on the Upper Parade Ground, and the cadets vacated their barracks in Jackman and Alumni Halls so that their contents could be fumigated and sterilized down to every book and bedsheet. Reports describe the camp as a military post in miniature, complete with camp cooks brought in from Fort Ethan Allen.

The contagion ultimately did not spread. The cadets seem to have taken their two-week camp quarantine in stride, and many looked back on it as an entertaining episode. When all was said and done, the scare served as a reminder that the university needed its own infirmary facility. The original Ainsworth Infirmary would be dedicated four years later, in 1916.

In a cruel twist of fate, Verner Belyea, the second smallpox patient, died from a spinal injury sustained during a football game the following year.

The 1912 smallpox quarantine is documented in campus publications held by the Norwich University Archives, many of which can be accessed online through the serial publications index entry on smallpox. Many student scrapbooks also document the event through photographs and reflections, particularly that of Joseph Peirce, Class of 1914, whose letters from the quarantine camp are also available in the archives.