Oregon’s History of Disease

Oregon’s history been marked by endemic, epidemic, and pandemic diseases from its very beginning.   

An endemic refers to a disease which is widespread within a region, while an epidemic refers to an endemic which has spread from one region to another. A pandemic is a worst-case scenario in which almost every part of the world is affected.   

18th Century Smallpox  

When Robert Gray sailed into the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792, he met members of the Clatsop Nation whose faces bore marks he instantly recognized as smallpox scars. When he asked about smallpox, they told him a shipwreck had brought a new disease about ten years earlier.   

Smallpox ravaged the Oregon country several times over the next sixty years until vaccination was widespread. The original vaccination was simply to be infected with vaccinia, or cowpox, which came and went without doing lasting harm and gave immunity against both cowpox and smallpox.  

19th Century Malaria  

The worst plague to ever ravage Oregon is one that is almost never seen here now. When malaria arrived in Portland aboard trading ships from tropical ports in 1830, the spread of “fever with ague” – a distressing problem to the white traders in Portland, to be treated with quinine and waited out – was Armageddon to the tribes of the Columbia Gorge and the Willamette Valley. More than 90 percent of the Native American population died in the first half of the 1830s.   

Any hope the Chinook, the Molalla, or the Kalapuya might have had to avoid the fate of Native tribes in other parts of the U.S. was lost when malaria laid waste to their societies. If the Kalapuya village of Tcha Peenafu had not been almost completely erased from the place where the Marys River flows into the Willamette by the time J.C. Avery arrived in 1845, the history of what happened afterward would have been very different, and so would the town which exists here today.   

Measles  

In 1847, a Native trading party from the upper Columbia River area went over the Siskiyous into Mexico to buy cattle. Someone contracted measles, and several members of the group died of it. The surviving members returned north and dispersed, carrying contagion with them. Measles spread among the entire human population, but killed one out of ten Native Americans, the second-worst plague they had ever seen.   

Wild rumors spread about where measles had originated and how it had spread. Members of the Cayuse Nation took to calling it “the white people’s disease,” and Christian missionary Marcus Whitman was accused of either allowing or intentionally causing it to spread. Whitman’s mission was destroyed in a massacre which led to a years-long campaign of terrorism and reprisals called the Cayuse Indian War, which ended with the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855.  

Typhoid   

In 1898, there was a typhoid epidemic in Corvallis. Dozens of people lay in beds all over town, as there was no hospital at the time. The source of the typhus bacilli was found to be contaminated water, drawn directly from the Willamette River untreated. A new water supply system was built, drawing cleaner water from Rock Creek.  

The Spanish Lady  

The worst pandemic of the 20th century was a deadly form of influenza which seems to have first appeared in Army barracks in Kansas. From there, troop movements of the First World War spread it rapidly around the world, but wartime censorship prevented news of it from being widely circulated until the story was broken by newspapers in neutral Spain. Spanish journalists were rewarded by having the plague named the “Spanish Flu.”  

The flu reached Oregon in October of 1918, with an outbreak among Army trainees at the newly opened Benson Polytechnic High School. The school was placed under quarantine, then uniformed soldiers were barred from public venues like theaters, and within days an order went out that schools, churches, and places of amusement were to be closed entirely in any town where influenza appeared.   

Oregon had the advantage that other parts of the U.S. had already suffered terribly from the “Spanish Lady’s” travels. The Surgeon General had issued a recommendation that all public businesses and gatherings should cease. The State Board of Health passed this along not as advice but as an order, either misinterpreting the Surgeon General’s words, or wanting to blame him for the strict regime they had decided to impose.  

In Corvallis, public attitudes towards the flu were divided much as they are today about coronavirus. A Gazette-Times headline from December 6, 1918 read, “Flu Situation Not Regarded Serious At All: Exaggerated Rumors Floating About Town Causing Annoyance.” The next day, a new quarantine order was issued due to multiple new cases being reported.  

By the time the flu had finished with Oregon, 3,500 of its 750,000 residents had died, or one out of every 200. The thousands who caught the flu and survived endured serious health problems, sometimes lasting their entire lives. It was the destruction wrought by the flu which finally led to the formation of a group dedicated to the establishment of Corvallis’ first hospital.  

The 21st century has many ways of treating illness that weren’t available in the past – antibiotics, oxygen therapy – but prevention is always better than treatment. When it comes to prevention, we have many of the same tools we had a generation ago, or five generations ago: hand washing, social distance, separate cups and utensils. Our collapsible cups are plastic instead of tin, and we replace a handshake with the “Live Long and Prosper” sign rather than a military salute, but the techniques are still the same, and the key to making them effective is still to use them correctly, to use them consistently, and to keep using them long enough.  

By John M. Burt