May 21, 1861
Alonzo Garcelon knew about practicing medicine on individuals, and he knew modern hospital procedures for 1861.
But, as the state’s newly appointed Surgeon General, Garcelon had no experience with Army camps.
With Maine in the process of recruiting, organizing, and training ten regiments of soldiers, Garcelon now had oversight responsibilities for the health of almost 10,000 men.
At his newly established administrative office in Portland, Garcelon received the news from Rockland that one of the new regiments, the 4th Maine Infantry, had an outbreak of measles.
"Measles in this regiment, in three companies. Large number exposed," the telegram read.
A highly contagious disease, measles could prove deadly. The new Surgeon General wasted no time.
Garcelon departed for Rockland to inspect the health of the soldiers. Hoping to keep the disease from spreading, the Surgeon General considered his alternatives, then informed Gov. Washburn that he wished to vaccinate the men.
The Governor replied quickly: "Vaccinate, by all means. Spreads unnecessary, blankets allowed."
Hoping to contain the disease, Garcelon was willing to allow the men to have the blankets that had already been issued, but wanted to keep the companies isolated from contacting other units.
The decision to vaccinate marked Garcelon as progressive – and close to radical – in his approach. Many in the medical community were skeptical about exposing a healthy body to a limited concentration of a disease. The conventional and conservative medical approach to a measles outbreak was to isolate only the stricken.
Yet, the Surgeon General proposed to inoculate as many of the Regiment as possible.
Garcelon’s decision to vaccinate proved successful. The measles outbreak was contained. The healthy troops proceeded to Portland for final preparations before heading south to the war front. The sick remained quarantined until they recovered.
- How difficult might Garcelon’s options have been for treating the measles outbreak?
- Might Washburn have faced a political controversy in approving the vaccination?