Don’t Lose This Ticket! The Train to No-Diphtheria-Town

photo 2In April, we posted about “Deadly Diphtheria,” an acute bacterial infection spread by personal contact, was the most feared of all childhood diseases. One in ten died from the disease, which suffocated its victims via a membrane that grew over the larynx. One of it’s greatest horrors? It struck children under the age of five.

Diphtheria vaccination first appeared in the 1890s, but only became widely used in the 1920s. Tracheotomy (opening the throat) and the intubation technique developed by Cleveland native Dr. Joseph O’Dwyer in the 1880s, which kept the airway open with a tube, provided last-resort means of saving a life. Even so, vaccine remained the only means of protecting children from suffering. The difficulty lie not in whether the vaccine would work, but whether parents would be diligent enough to bring their children in for the full number of vaccinations through the course of four treatments. The solution? Oddly enough, a train 3

In the present-day US, few trains still run, but the iconic imagery remains. Consider the buzz among children of all ages after the Harry Potter series introduced Platform 9 (and three-quarters)–or the magic ticket of Polar Express. What child doesn’t love a train set? Who doesn’t want a magic ticket? In the 1930s in Maryland, Metropolitan Life Insurance and the County Health Department of Elkton conspired to take advantage of this long-time love of locomotion.

Train Ticket to No-Diphtheria Town

Welcome to the “Health Road,” and do not lose this ticket. Curator Jim Edmonson came across this piece of history on an auction site while traveling in Philadelphia. This little ticket book refers to the physician as the little traveler’s friendly Conductor, and four stations unfold, ready to be stamped with the date of arrival.

photo 1On this journey, we find two-year-old Jane Elizabeth from Elkton, MD. Jim was surprised to find her picture included with the ticket; together these items tell a story of medical success.  Little Jane (here in the buggy) began her travels on April 11, 1930, and concluded them with the Schick test on Feb 21, 1931 proving that she was safe once and for all! (Hip! Hip! I’m in No-Diphtheria Town!)photo 2

Little Jane grew up safe and healthy–here is a picture of her on her High School Graduation. Thank heavens for the Health Road!

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Brandy Schillace

Historian and author Brandy Schillace, PhD, is Editor for Medhum Fiction | Daily Dose, Research Associate and Public Engagement at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, as well as Managing Editor of the medical anthropology journal Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry.

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