Diphtheria and Immigrants in Paterson, NJ, 1893

Diphtheria and Immigrants in Paterson, NJ, 1893

“Diphtheria in Paterson” the headline read. The article announced that School No. 12 in the city’s New Holland neighborhood was closed after twelve students had died from the infection.  The building stood at 33-41 Bergen St., the center of an area city officials described as a “watersoaked” land, where “gutters are generally filled with filth and slop water.”  New Holland sat in a shallow bowl between a steep hill and the Passaic River.  The river doubled as both water supply and open sewer for textile mills, dye houses, and machine shops.  The Paterson Sanitary Company processed the city’s garbage in a facility located directly across the river.  In this dystopian setting, New Hollands’ 600-plus children used the riverbank as their playground.  The homeowners steadfastly opposed the city’s efforts to improve the neighborhood’s drainage and resisted paying the assessments to finance such a project.

They lived in modest one- and two-family houses separated by three-foot alleys.  Privies and wells stood in the cramped open spaces within easy leaching distance from one another.  When diphtheria surfaced at an alarming rate during October 1893, Dr. John L. Leal, Paterson’s health inspector, ordered the pump handles removed.  When the locals fashioned substitutes of their own making, he had the wells sealed.  With the number of infections in School No. 12 reaching forty-nine and the death count mounting, Leal ordered the school closed, as well as the Dutch-speaking Christian school on Amity Street, just a few blocks away.  This brought the contagion under control.

New Holland contained only three percent of the New Jersey industrial city’s population, but it accounted for 47% of the diphtheria cases reported during October and November.  Overwhelmingly the inhabitants were immigrants from the Netherlands, the bulk of them having arrived since 1880.   “New Holland” was not a complimentary name, nor was its alternative “Over the River.”  Paterson’s current crop of civic leaders mirrored these epithets, some more diplomatically than others.

During October Mayor Christian Braun, a first-generation German brewer, informed the Board of Alderman he would only assign public works contracts to bidders who gave preference to “Paterson men… over foreign laborers.” The Board of Health chairman, a proud member of the Sons of the American Revolution, regarded immigrants as people in need of sanitation and moral uplift.  Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, a rising star on Columbia College’s philosophy faculty and chairman of Paterson’s Board of Education, viewed public education as essential to Americanizing people like New Holland’s residents.  In this atmosphere, many viewed “that poor Dutch school” as both “Anti-American” and the source of the contagion.  

The Zondervan home today.

These same Dutch immigrants who would pay tuition to keep their children out of the public schools opposed taxes to fix their neighborhood’s drainage problems. In the face of such resistance to “progress” one Paterson newspaper opined, “Evidently these property owners of New Holland care more for a dollar than they do for their children’s lives and their own health.  Surely the Holland clergymen of Paterson should preach at these benighted heathen and shame them into action… Is all father and mother love dead and all decency departed from New Holland. We hope not; yet it would seem so.”

Among the targeted and bereaved households few were more stricken than the Zondervans.  Andries and his wife Tjitske Wiersma had arrived in Paterson in 1890 from St. Jacobiparochie, Friesland.  They arrived with two young daughters (Wytske and Tjitske) and found a dwelling at 29 Bergen Street, two doors away from School No. 12.  Given their living conditions, the girls undoubtedly shared one bed in a small room on the second floor. Andries variously worked as a common laborer and carpenter.  In 1892 the Zondervan’s first American child arrived, a son named Charles.  During the fateful fall, five and a half-year-old Wytske had most likely started school, either at No. 12 or at Amity Street. In either event, she died on October 30, her mother’s birthday.  Four-year-old Tjitske succumbed on November 23.  At least five other Bergen Street residents, aged 87, 39, 19, 5, and one day, died between October 22 and November 2.

Atlas of Passaic County, New-Jersey (1877), Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Right-click on the image, click “View Image,” and use the magnifying lens to see a larger version and find Amity Street and Bergen Street.

Two events during the ensuing months indicate the impact the two deaths had on the Zondervans.  First, they moved away from Bergen Street into a house located on the opposite side of the Passaic River in the heavily Dutch and largely spared Bunker Hill neighborhood.  Secondly, Andries and Tjitske formally joined the First Christian Reformed Church.  Losing two little girls in a matter of days had to have been a shattering experience.  But it was not the end of their story.  They grew into their adopted community and church.  They changed their names to Jessie and Andrew; Zondervan became Sondervan.  Their six children carried American equivalents of Frisian given names.  They all attended the local Christian schools.  In 1910 the family returned to New Holland when Andrew became the janitor for First Christian Reformed Church.  In little more than a decade, the Sondervan’s accumulated the capital to buy a house of their own “up the hill”, above the stench of the river and dye houses.

The informed science of 1893–and that Dr. John L. Leal accepted–taught that the diphtheria bacterium arose from poor sanitation and bad water.  The disease spread through contact with infected surfaces.  This explains his decisions to seal the wells, close the schools, quarantine the victims at home, and disinfect the homes afterward.  After the diphtheria outbreak ended, he came to prefer chloride of lime.  He even experimented with chlorine to kill germs and bacteria in Passaic River water.  As a consultant to the Jersey City Water Company, Leal had a filtration plant built to add chlorine to the water.  When this proved the antidote to the system’s disease problems, cities throughout the United States adopted his chlorination method to eradicate waterborne diseases common at that time from urban water systems.

John L. Leal (date unknown)

Over time public health leaders learned that water did not spread diphtheria, but respiratory droplets did.  Dr. Leal’s use of the quarantine ended New Holland’s outbreak, not sealing the wells or fumigating the houses.  But ending the outbreak added to his stature as an expert and lent credibility to his crusade for clean municipal water.  He was right about water’s role in spreading some diseases.  Time would demonstrate that vaccines were the antidotes to others–like diphtheria. But Leal’s work did largely eradicate a scourge like typhoid.

Because of Dr. Leal’s dedication, and the credibility he earned from events like the diphtheria outbreak in Paterson’s New Holland neighborhood, safe municipal water became commonplace—something we take for granted today until something goes wrong.  New Holland’s immigrant inhabitants did not cause the disease that infected them. Leal could not save the Zondervan sisters in 1893, but what he learned from such failures made a safer future for those who came behind.   From the shadow of death on Bergen Street came light.

Dr. Robert Schoone-Jongen is professor emeritus of history at Calvin University.

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