1910s typhoid epidemic

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The 1910s typhoid epidemic was a particularly bad stretch of a long cycle of high rates of typhoid in Birmingham. In the years leading up to 1916, the city reported 70 to 100 deaths from the disease each summer, making it the worst city of its size in the United States for typhoid cases.

In 1915, the city's health department, under R. M. Cunningham, undertook a systematic campaign to reduce the presence of house flies, draining and poisoning breeding grounds and utilizing traps. Inspections of the city's milk and butter supplies were increased, including inspections of eateries, dairies and stables. Daily bacteriological analysis of Birmingham Water Works supplies were undertaken, along with analysis of samples from suspected infected patients. Plans were made to "free Birmingham from the dry-closet evil", including public assistance to connect poorer households to sanitary sewers by assessing all residents to offset the costs.

Despite those efforts, which may not have been executed to the same extent they were planned, the period etween June 1 and July 18, 1916, saw 451 cases of typhoid reported in the city. At the invitation of Birmingham City Commissioner John Hornady, a federal expert, Dr Leslie Lumsden, came that month to Birmingham, along with two other federal investigators, to study the cause of the rate of infection.

The investigators' first finding, that most of the victims were children aged 10-15 from "prosperous circumstances," led them to interview those families about what treats their children had been given. They discovered that more than half of the people infected had ingested a single brand of ice cream, and were able to trace the milk used by the manufacturer to a particular dairy whose operation lacked proper sanitation practices. Insufficient inspection of food supplies was reported as the most significant problem that could be addressed.

Their report also advised that the widespread use of spring and well water and dry closets made the city more prone to outbreaks than those with better access to treated water and sanitary sewer systems. In addition to sanitation efforts, vaccination campaigns were initiated by the Jefferson County Medical Society. 15,000 were vaccinated before 1916, and a campaign to vaccinate African Americans was to begin that year.

The epidemic was one of the factors that led to the formation of the Jefferson County Department of Health in 1917.


  • "Health Department" (August 1915) Birmingham Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 34 - via Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections
  • "Birmingham Typhoid Caused by Ice Cream" (August 3, 1916) Municipal Journal. Vol. 41, No. 5
  • "100 Years Ago – The 1916 Typhoid Epidemic" (May 2016) Birmingham History Center Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 3