Diptheria Epidemic in 1736 

In 2020, we were reminded of an epidemic that swept through Guilford in 1736 that cost many people’s lives. Throat Distemper, Strangling Angel or as Noah Webster called it “A plague among children”, we now know it as Diphtheria.

The most familiar words of our pandemic today – social distancing, home schooling, telecommuting, webinar, Zooming – the one that the residents of the Hyland House would have recognized in 1736 would be “quarantine.”  For hundreds of years it was the most effective way to slow the spread of disease.  

At the time, towns were isolated, populations dispersed and susceptible to various outbreaks.  Plus with the limited medical knowledge and few options, we can appreciate their fear of disease of any kind.

So in 1735 when a diphtheria outbreak occurred first in Maine and New Hampshire and also in New Jersey, quarantines were established one town and then another.  Unfortunately they did not have the communication advantage we have today, so with a disease that would strike and kill in 2 weeks, spreading through direct contact and the air.  Like today, people were carriers without symptoms.

By 1736 diphtheria was well established in Connecticut.  That year there were recorded 163 deaths.  And among the 38 children dead in the autumn in Guilford (population was 1,100), it struck the Parmelee family at the Hyland House very hard.  Ebenezer and Anna lost all 4 of their boys.  First was Samuel, age 12, on 30 September, then Reuben (10) on 14 October, Phineas (3) on 27 October and then Ebenezer (17) on 1 November.  Good news for the family was that Anna (16) and Ruth (4) were both spared.  The epidemic  in Connecticut continued until 1740.

A vaccine was finally developed for diphtheria in 1933.  And as difficult as quarantines are – being away from friends and family, being restricted – how lucky we are that science and medicine are there to help us today.