Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Dr. Alexander McLeod’s 1834 Letter on Vaccines in the Crawford Messenger [Guest Submission]

Vaccinations in 1830 America

At a time when vaccines against the coronavirus are being produced by multiple companies, an interesting bit of Meadville history comes to our attention.  First, it is important to remember why and how “immunization” and "vaccination" came about.  It was to combat the scourge of smallpox.  In the 1700’s people, including the Continental Army, were given a mild dose of smallpox by putting a small amount of live virus under the skin.  This occasionally would be deadly, and the person inoculated had to be quarantined while the infection was present.  In the late 1700s, Jenner discovered that inoculating a person with cowpox matter from a cow pustule was equally effective and safer.  The term "vaccination" actually implies that the matter came from a cow.  The term has come to have a much broader meaning today. 

Smallpox in Crawford County and Dr. Alexander McLeod 

In 1834 smallpox was present in several parts of Crawford County. This is where the remarkable story of Dr. Alexander McLeod comes in.  Although he was a physician in Meadville for only about 10 years, Dr. Alexander McLeod deserves special recognition.  He first came to Meadville as a physician in 1833.  He left Meadville in 1843 and returned in 1872; not as a physician but as a retired Army chaplain.  He had already been a physician of some distinction when he came to Meadville in 1833.  He was born in Canada in 1799 where his father was an Anglican priest.  He was sent to New York City to live with his uncle while receiving his education.  

In 1817, he went to Philadelphia to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. During his third year at the university, he accepted an appointment as ship’s surgeon on a ship headed for China. This adventure of a lifetime took him to Europe initially where he would spend time in London as well as Antwerp, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam. During the delay in London Dr. McLeod, as an American student, attended lectures and witnessed advanced surgeries by the leading surgeons there.  On his return to Philadelphia, he became acquainted with the distinguished English gentleman Hardeman Phillips Esq.    Mr. Phillips asked Dr. McLeod to accompany him to Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania, and practice his profession there.

Although living in Phillipsburg, he also began to practice in Clearfield in 1824.  A dysentery epidemic was raging in the region.  It destroyed entire families.  The epidemic was so severe that everyone was alarmed and threatened by the disease.   At that time Dr. McLeod made his headquarters in a local tavern.  The untiring efforts of Dr. McLeod and another local physician, Dr. John Hoyt, involved both informing the community about the disease and administering relief to those afflicted.  During the height of the epidemic, these physicians were on the go day and night.  For four weeks Dr. McLeod did not return home.  Because of fatigue, at times he would sleep in the saddle.  At other times he would tie his horse out of sight so he could catch a quick nap in a barn by the roadside.  For a whole month, he was so involved that he did not have time to shave.

Dr. McLeod Comes to Meadville

Dr. McLeod remained there for several years and then moved to Lewiston in Mifflin County.  He then moved to Pittsburgh where he opened an office briefly and then was recruited by some gentleman from Meadville to move to Meadville. He practiced in Meadville for almost 10 years.  During that time, he married Matilda, the daughter of Jared Shattuck.  He was actively involved in the practice of medicine.  

His interest in preventative medicine was quite clear.  Vaccination was the best approach to fighting smallpox.  This had been known since the time of Jenner almost 35 years before.  For various reasons, the vaccinations were not always successful.  However, the impact on preventing smallpox was extremely significant.  At that time, one way of getting the word out to the public about important matters was to publish a letter addressed to a specific individual.  Dr. McLeod published a letter in the Crawford Messenger to John Reynolds, a leading citizen.  He had a private conversation with Mr. Reynolds and may have been encouraged to publicize the information that he shared with Mr. Reynolds.  The letter pointed out several reasons why vaccination might not be successful.  One of the concerns was that the “matter” used for the vaccination may not be fresh or powerful enough.  Dr. McLeod emphasized the overall importance and effectiveness of the procedure. The best way to get an effective inoculum was to make his own. The letter makes this argument at some length.  As a conclusion to the letter, he stated, 

It has been computed that of every six persons to take smallpox in the natural way, one dies— in the inoculated smallpox population, it is 1 to 500.  Now it is alleged on behalf of the vaccination that, provided the matter is genuine, it destroys entirely the susceptibility to smallpox contagion, or so modifies it that it disarms it of all its dangers, so that one, however well acquainted with the appearance of natural smallpox, would scarcely recognize it under the triumphant protection of the vaccine aegis.  I need not remind you of the interest in which our community must feel on the subject, and in the enterprise of obtaining new and genuine matter.  I’ve only to express to you my acknowledgment for your liberal kindness in allowing me to use, for this purpose, one of your cows and am most truly yours.                                                           


Meadville, May 8, 1834

Dr. McLeod was clearly involved in obtaining the most effective inoculum that he could.  This letter gives an interesting insight into medicine in 1834.

Personal Tragedy and Later Life

A turning point came in the doctor’s life in early 1843.  In January of that year, he lost two infant children to disease.  In April of that year, he lost his wife.  This had a profound effect on him.  Certainly, his family background may have had a role to play in his changing occupation.  A new Episcopal seminary had just started in Ohio. There he studied to become a priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the diocese of Ohio.  

After serving a parish in Ohio, he went south and served as a priest, establishing churches in the south.  After several years in the south, he returned to Meadville and Pittsburgh where his two surviving children had been in school.  He was then assigned parishes at Clearfield, Pennington, Columbia, and back to Clearfield.  While appointed to Huntington in 1854, he married the daughter of Col. Fenwick of St. Mary’s County, MD.  They had four children.

The Rev. McLeod was likely in the Huntington parish when the Civil War broke out.  He was appointed by Gov. Curtin to be chaplain of the 85th Pennsylvania volunteers.   In late 1862 Pres. Lincoln commissioned him to be an army hospital chaplain.  He served in the large hospitals in Philadelphia and then in Wilmington, Delaware.  

In August 1865, at the end of the war, he was reappointed by Pres. Johnson to be a chaplain in the regular army.  He served initially at Fort Delaware, Delaware.  Then he served at various other places.  His last orders would have taken him to Camp Douglas, Salt Lake City, Utah. But because of his health, he resigned and moved to Meadville to spend the rest of his days.  He died in 1877 and is buried in Greendale Cemetery.  

One can only imagine what his reaction would be to the current pandemic and vaccines.  With his own personal family experience with illness, he would be amazed at the miraculous progress in preventing disease.  He would probably wonder why anybody would put themselves and others at risk by not getting vaccinated.


Obituary from the Evening Republican, February 14, 1877, page 3, column 5.

The History of Clearfield County. ed by Lewis Cass Aldrich, D. Mason & Co. Syracuse, N.Y. 1887.  pp 256-7.

Crawford Messenger, May 9, 1834.

About the Author

Donald Rezek (M.D, Ph.D.) is a retired neurologist with an interest in early medicine in the county.  Originally, he was from La Crosse, Wisconsin.  After his training, he became part of the Department of Neurology at the University of Pittsburgh.  He moved to Meadville to practice in 1995 and retired at the end of 2014.  He is married to Ellen who was the chaplain at Wesbury until she retired in 2012.  Since he retired, he has had an interest in studying the earliest physicians in Meadville. 

Monday, April 13, 2020

A Brief History of Politics in Crawford County

Crawford County has rarely stifled its opinions regarding national politics. The tone was set by residents in 1807 who burned an effigy of Federalist, Aaron Burr outside the courthouse. And this was hardly the county’s last political riot. While training to fight the British in 1812, the theft of an onion split local militiamen along party lines leading to a clash between Federalists troopers and their Democratic comrades who were hellbent on torching downtown Meadville.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Life and Customs in Meadville, 1842

Meadville's Diamond Park as it may have looked in the early 1800s
In the central part of a letter headed Meadville, Dec 18th, 1842, my great, great grandmother Agnes Kennedy (née Craig), described her life in Meadville for her sister Elizabeth, back in their birthplace of New Cumnock in Ayrshire, Scotland.[1] In May 1842, aged 17, she had eloped with John Kennedy, a 27-year-old merchant (also from New Cumnock), and been married in Edinburgh.[2] Shortly afterward they were at the port in Glasgow, where they boarded the ship Congress, which arrived in New York on July 1.[3]

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Timothy Alden and the Founding of Allegheny College

Timothy Alden Jr., the founder of Allegheny College, was by all accounts a charismatic and motivated man who pursued opportunities to expand education throughout his life. He was descended from John Alden, who landed on Plymouth Rock on November 15, 1620. Like his father, Timothy Alden, he was a Harvard educated pastor and was ordained in 1799. He was the principal of three different academies in Portsmouth, Boston, and Newark, after which he moved to Meadville in 1815. “[Alden’s] goal was to serve God by serving Man, and to service his young county by strengthening its unity through inculcation of a community of ethics and morality through the education of ministers, teachers and others in the newly settled regions”.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Amazing Story of the Exposition Park Fire of 1908

 The morning after - charred remains of the fire's path. The Hotel Conneaut stands untouched in the background.

As the morning darkness of December 2, 1908, dissolved into daylight, a scene of utter destruction revealed itself along the shores of Conneaut Lake. Wisps of smoke twisted feebly from the charred debris of Exposition Park. The sight of such amusement for so many just months earlier now offered only sooty outlines and blackened, smoldering heaps made all the more pronounced by thin, ragged patches of snow.

Exhausted firemen and volunteers shuffled along gathering their buckets and hoses in preparation for the return to their stations. They had just battled what, for some, would be the biggest blaze they would ever witness, and certainly the most destructive in the park’s history. Had the fire occurred during the height of the summer season, the disaster would likely have been catastrophic. Instead, despite the loss of over forty structures, thankfully no one perished.