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ALTON - Lacy McDonald is back in action with a new article for

This week’s article details how the smallpox epidemic affected Madison County in 1924. McDonald noted that it was interesting to research smallpox and learn more about the role it played in everyday life throughout the early 1900s.

“Smallpox is one of the most interesting topics that I think exists in my job,” McDonald said. “It just feels magical that something that was around for 3,000 years has been eradicated, and there are a whole bunch of factors why.”

McDonald explained that during this week 100 years ago, Madison County had the highest number of smallpox cases in Illinois, with 34 cases out of the total 70 new cases in the state that week. As a result, people across the county were encouraged to get vaccinated and quarantine if they were sick. In Madison County, only half of Irving School’s students were present at school; the rest were either in quarantine, at home recovering from the side effects of the vaccine or kept home because their parents didn’t want to vaccinate them.

There were two forms of smallpox. The variola major strain had a 30% fatality rate, while the variola minor was “much less fatal,” McDonald said. The last person to have naturally-acquired smallpox variola major was in 1975 in Bangladesh. Since then, the virus has been fully globally eradicated.

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While researching for the article, McDonald said she discovered a lot about smallpox. She learned that it could be eradicated because it was a “fully human virus,” with no animal reservoirs. In Madison County, the population size and the industry led to people being in close quarters, which might have contributed to the spread.

As part of the article, McDonald included an image of a Works Progress Administration poster. These posters were produced by the WPA throughout the late 1930s to inform the public. McDonald pointed out that the posters give us a better understanding of issues that people were concerned about.

“One of the most fun things that I’ve been learning about while I’ve been doing these articles is the WPA posters that the government essentially funded in mostly the 1930s,” she explained. “There are art ones, there are library ones, there are ones related to public health. The one I used in the article is one of the ones that was done through the Food and Drug Administration through the WPA, and it’s available at the Library of Congress website. You can go in and you can look at all of them. There are hundreds. You kind of get a sense of what people were struggling with at the time.”

She also learned more about Smallpox Island, an island in the Mississippi River that earned its name during the Civil War. Prisoners at Alton’s Confederate Prison were shipped to the island when they had smallpox. But, as McDonald noted, most of the people who went to Smallpox Island weren’t expected to leave. The island is now underwater, but its history lives on.

Looking forward, McDonald is excited to learn more about Alton history as she writes weekly articles for Her most recent article details a local Boy Scout troop that won a trip to Abraham Lincoln’s home in New Salem.

She noted that one of the most interesting parts of writing historical articles is drawing the parallels between history and today. The challenges, joys and issues that people faced in 1924 are not unlike the experiences that Altonians have 100 years later.

“There's always controversy about things you wouldn’t expect there to be controversy about, looking at it from our time period,” McDonald added. “And then at the same time, we can see the same sort of sentiments with stuff we’ve dealt with today.”

Keep an eye on for McDonald’s future articles. You can read all of her stories here.

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