This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.
Before their vaccines were made available, measles and rubella swept through towns every few years, mostly infecting young children. Everyone was expected to suffer through them at some point.
Waco native Mary Sendón recalls her and her siblings' experience with the more serious of the two illnesses:
"All of us—four of us—got measles at the same time. I was even in grammar school; I didn't get it till I was in grammar school. And I remember that my grandfather and my dad—you know, the men really worried about the kids a lot. You'd be surprised how much attention they gave to them. But I know my grandfather got worried because my fever was way up high. And, you know, it was so high that my nails peeled off. And he got up and went to the drugstore and tried to get something from—there was an old Kassell's drugstore down on Eighth Street, and he got the druggist to give him something to get the fever down. And there were little powders. You had to mix them in a teaspoon of water and then drink a glass of water. Fever powders, that's what they were called. And he went down and got that.
"And, I tell you, we were sick for about a week. And we had to stay in a dark room, you know, because—to protect the eyes. And my grandmother was there, my great-aunt, and my father and mother, and everybody was taking care of all the sick kids. But it did affect my brother's eyes. That's why when he went into the service, he—they wouldn't take him because of his eyes. Of course, then the draft took him and put him in the air corps."
Dr. Howard Williams of Orange tells how rubella, commonly known as the German measles, possibly saved his life during WWII:
"I went up to Camp Atterbury [Joint Maneuver Training Center] in Indiana and finished my basic training there as a rifleman. And then we were all packed to go—we were in the 106th Division—and we're packed, ready to go that very week. And I got up with splotches all over me. I had measles—German. They put me in the hospital there at Camp Atterbury, and the 106th left. And then after ten days, they—the day the division's gone, they reassigned me. They sent me to a artillery observation battalion, and that was down at Camp Gordon, Georgia.
"Well, the 106th that I was—would have been with, was one that was totally destroyed in the [Battle of the] Bulge. They were all pre-college type, and the Germans burst across the line there, and—gosh, a division is like fifteen thousand people. And out of fifteen thousand, I think like seven—six or seven thousand were killed, and another five or six thousand were captured. So had I not had German measles, I don't know what would have happened to me."
Interviewer: "A lot of people you trained with, too."
"And all these people I'd trained with and all. I mean, they just disappeared."
Vaccines for measles and rubella were licensed in the U.S. in the 1960s. Since then, the number of cases has dropped by 99 percent, ending the role of these illnesses as anticipated life events.
Living Stories is heard every Tuesday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco NPR. For program transcripts or more information about the Institute for Oral History, visit baylor.edu/livingstories.
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