Vulgarly Called The Throat-Distemper: New Jersey’s Two-Century Struggle Against Diphtheria

Sandra W. Moss


In 1740, minister and physician Jonathan Dickinson of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, published “Observations on that Terrible Disease Vulgarly Called the Throat-Distemper,” a short treatise on the diagnosis and treatment of epidemic diphtheria for the benefit of physicians in Boston. Dickinson’s pamphlet was a landmark in American colonial medical literature. It was New Jersey’s first—and last—important original contribution to the medical literature on diphtheria. For the next two centuries, New Jersey, with no medical colleges or prestigious teaching hospitals of its own, would import the medical knowledge and innovations necessary to control and finally eradicate the disease that cruelly killed thousands of New Jersey children in the two centuries following Dickinson’s report. This article examines the processes by which New Jersey practitioners and public health officers imported, processed, disseminated, and applied the lessons of the germ theory and immunology in their two-century quest to banish one of the great scourges of childhood.

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