How Chicago became a leader in combating contagious diseases

The McCormick Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases disbursed more than 100 million diphtheria vaccines. It also discovered the cause and an effective treatment for scarlet fever.

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One seven-year-old boy was the only pupil left in this classroom at the William T. Sherman School in Chicago during a 1935 scarlet fever pandemic.

Sun-Times archives

Across Chicago, scientists are scrambling to tackle the coronavirus.

From the testing kits developed at Abbott Labs, to the wearable COVID sensors Northwestern University researchers are developing and the growing medical image database at the University of Chicago, Chicago is rushing to the rescue.

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It is comforting to know that these brilliant researchers are on the case. But this is nothing new to “make no little plans” Chicago. After all, way back in 1900 — after the herculean work to rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire and the grand show for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition — engineers actually managed to reverse the flow of the Chicago River in an effort to curb cholera and typhoid outbreaks.

Two years later, in 1902, Harold and Edith (Rockefeller) McCormick, having just lost their firstborn child to scarlet fever, founded the John R. McCormick Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases, helping Chicago secure a leadership spot in the field of contagious disease.

The Institute started out by renting space in the Presbyterian Hospital to provide free care for low-income patients suffering from scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, mumps and whooping cough.

Finding a suitable location for a building proved difficult. The Institute actually bought an entire city block just west of Washington Park, but fear of contagion caused an uproar from neighborhood residents and the City Council.

Finally, in 1913, with help from the estate of Annie Durand, the Institute secured a site at the corner of Flournoy and Wood streets, now consumed by the giant Rush/UIC hospital complex. The two-story building featured 60 beds and was joined by an adjacent laboratory the following year. 

While the hospital provided free care to patients, a primary effort of the research lab was to manufacture and distribute vaccines. In 1916, it was reported that the Institute had disbursed over 100 million diphtheria vaccines, at cost. It was also in this lab that the married research team of Gladys and George Dick determined hemolytic streptococcus to be the cause of scarlet fever and developed a diagnostic skin test and an antitoxin for treatment. An immunization protocol followed shortly after, changing the landscape for scarlet fever patients. 

Records show that in its first 20 years, the Institute served approximately 14,000 patients, one third of whom were suffering from scarlet fever. The Institute was vital not only in saving lives (only 142 of their scarlet fever patients died) but also in developing safe protocols for staff in managing contagious patients. Prior to the development of the Dick test, one nurse out of every 13 developed scarlet fever. Once they had the test at hand, nurses were screened daily — as they were for diphtheria as well — and the infection level among the staff dropped to one in 200.

The Institute also served a vital educational purpose: more than 1,600 medical students were given clinical instruction; 1,100 nurses were instructed in proper infection control; and dozens of interns and residents received specialized training before moving on to their permanent assignments. The Chicago-based McCormicks also endowed the Journal of Infectious Diseases, a leading medical journal that has provided physicians across the world with the latest news on infectious diseases for over 100 years.

In this way alone, Chicago’s contribution to the field of infectious disease is incalculable.

While the building closed in 1933 for financial reasons, the work of the Institute was absorbed into the University of Chicago Hospital system, where cutting-edge research and high-quality medical care are still the standards. No doubt the McCormicks would be pleased to see the leadership role Chicago researchers and medical professionals continue to take as the world grapples with this 2020 pandemic.

Chicago has never shied away from a challenge.

Andrea Friederici Ross is the author of Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020) and Let the Lions Roar! The Evolution of Brookfield Zoo (Chicago Zoological Society, 1997).

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