Thursday, April 28, 2016

Diphtheria - The Strangler

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection caused by Corynebacterium diphtheria which is transmitted through close contact with an infected individual, usually through respiratory secretions in the air. It is known as “The Strangler” because the toxins produced by the bacteria causes a thick film to develop in the throat which makes it more and more difficult to breath, ultimately leading to strangulation. The spread of the toxin in the body can also lead to serious issues with the heart, and other vital organs. It was found that some people were chronic carriers without knowing it or contracting the disease.

Medical reports of the “strangling disease” first appeared in the 1600's. Becoming a great threat as cities grew and became more populated. The more people, the greater the spread of the disease. In the 19th century, diphtheria became a major cause of death, fueled by the Industrial Revolution and the increased population in urban communities. Though mostly a disease associated with the poor and a particular threat to children, diphtheria did not discriminate by class or age. It's cause, route of spread, and a cure remained a mystery until the last part of the 19th century.

Underscoring diphtheria's broad threat was demonstrated with the death of Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria of England, in 1878 at the age of 35. Alice fell ill after 4 of her 7 children and her husband, Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt were all stricken with the disease. Alice and her youngest child died. Ironically none of the rest of the 60 members of the household were affected. It was thought that the disease could be spread by the kiss of a mother and child which is where the term “kiss of death” come from.

Princess Alice - 1870's ( Public image from Wikipede)

Diphtheria raged through the United States and Canada during the same time period. While doing research for my Tombstone Tuesday blog I came across the Utter family in my family tree. Daniel Utter was born in Wentworth Ontario, Canada in April 10, 1831. Julia Ann Hainer was the daughter of John and Nancy (Bowman) Hainer. She was born on October 2, 1838 in Brant, Ontario. ( I am related to Julia Ann through the Hainer family.) They were married in Brant, Ontario on April 16, 1855. Daniel was a Blacksmith in Burford, Brant County, Ontario.

They began their family in 1859 with the birth of a son, John and every couple of years or so they had another child; Next was Annie born in 1862, then Melissa born in 1864, then Mary in 1866, Charles in 1871, Rosa Belle in 1872, William in 1874 and Nancy in 1875.

In the 18th of December, Mary became sick  with diphtheria and she died on December 24th. On December 21st, Anne became ill, on the 23rd Nancy and Melissa became ill and by the 25th, Charles became ill all stricken with diphtheria. Five children from this family became ill within a week. On December 27th, Anna, Charles and Nancy all died on the same day. Melissa died the following day on the 28th of December. On December 28th Rose Belle became ill and on January 2nd William became ill. William died on January 7th and Rose Belle died on January 8th, 1878.

It is very hard for me to imagine what it must have been like to watch and try to care for each of these children as they died this horrific death. Julia and Daniel lost 7 children to diphtheria beginning on December 18th of 1877 and ending on January 8th of 1878. They had one child who did not get diphtheria, that was the oldest son, John. He would have been 18 years old at the time and was likely working somewhere out side of the home. With the onset of the disease, the house would have been placed under quarantine. John would have to stayed away.

Seven graves of the Utter Children
In the 1881 Canadian Census, John is still living at home and is age 22 and Julia and Daniel have begun the rebuild their family. They have a son William who is 3 years old and a daughter Nancy who is 7 months old. By the 1891 Census, they have another son, Elroy who is 5 years old.

Julia Ann died in December 27, 1899 of a Liver disease. Daniel remarried and is found in the 1901 census with his new wife Catherine and the two youngest children, 20 year old Nancy and 15 year old Elroy. Catherine Ann Utter, Daniel's Second wife died on April 24, 1920 and is buried in Brookton Ontario. Daniel died November 22, 1920 at the age of 84.

The Diphtheria Bacterium was finally identified in the late 1880's and in the 1890's a diphtheria antitoxin was developed in Germany to treat victims of the disease. The antitoxin was prepared after horses were injected with larger and larger does of the toxin. The toxin cause no harm in horses and it stimulated an immune response and the white blood cells were processed into an antitoxin. The antitoxin, when given in time and in large doses, saved lives but it did not prevent diphtheria nor did it stop it from spreading.

In 1924, there were 9000 cases of diphtheria in Canada resulting in 2000 deaths. In 1923, Gaston Ramon, at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, discovered that when the Diphtheria Toxin was exposed to minute quantities formaldehyde and heated, the toxin became nontoxic and could stimulate the immune system and the first vaccine was born.

I just could not pass up the chance to tell this tragic story. I know that diphtheria had tragic results in many families. I know that through my research I have seen other child who died from this disease but to have 7 children from the same family died in a span of about three weeks was just very hard for me to comprehend.

Happy Hunting,


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