Vaccinations in Wasatch County

Jessie L. Embry
The History of Wasatch County

Health care is another area in which government became increasingly involved around the turn of the century. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, residents frequently shared contagious diseases. Lethe Belle Coleman Tatge of Midway described epidemic outbreaks of diphtheria and smallpox. At first the only ways to prevent spreading disease were to keep the sick people home and cancel public meetings. The Heber City Board of Health, established in 1898, set the rules for quarantines for Heber and one mile outside the city limits. The board of health enforced these rules and required the families to pay the city’s expenses of posting signs. The president of the health board could bar all public meetings when there was an epidemic. Even with these measures, disease control continued to be a problem throughout the county. When the local health board canceled public meetings, people still met each other and spread the infection. Communities tried several other methods. In 1902 the Midway Board of Health ruled that children under the age of sixteen could not attend public amusements. The board did not discontinue schools during an epidemic in 1906, arguing that while the students were in class they did not intermix as much with other residents.

At the turn of the century, many Americans believed government overstepped its bounds if it mandated newly developed vaccinations. The Wave editor stated he would favor compulsory vaccinations only if they were absolutely necessary, because he did not feel they were safe. Midway residents felt that requiring vaccinations was “unAmerican,” “unconstitutional,” and would not prevent the spread of the disease. This was a common belief in Utah, and in 1901 the state passed an anti-vaccination law. The Wave applauded the move: “In other words, it robs the tyrant of his power to rob the people of their right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'” In response to a Salt Lake Tribune article asking why allow quarantines and not vaccinations, The Wave said it favored quarantining but questioned the logic of requiring children to have vaccinations when others in public places had not. The debate continued. No final decisions were made, and in January 1901 Heber Central School decided not to bar non-vaccinated children if there were no new cases of smallpox. The next month the schools were opened to all children regardless of whether they had been vaccinated.

By 1909 that opinion had changed. Dr. W. R. Wherritt, a local physician who also worked for several communities, called a public meeting at the Heber Second Ward meetinghouse. He requested money from the school fund to pay for vaccinations, and The Wave applauded the idea. State and county citizens continued to debate the issue, and in 1922 the state board of education encouraged but did not require vaccinations for smallpox.

Sources:  Tatge, 9, LDS Church Archives; Wasatch Wave, 22 April 1898, 2; Midway City Council Minutes, 23 December 1902. Wasatch Wave, 21 December 1900, 2; 13 March 1991, 2B; 1 February 1901, 2; 8 February 1901, 2; 11 January 1901, 3; 8 February 1901, 3. Wasatch Wave, 8 October 1909, 2; 2 March 1922, 5.