Winston-Salem and the Fight for Vaccination

This is a tale of two towns, but it begins in Salem in 1766. In the mid-eighteenth century, a devout group of Moravian settlers came from Eastern Europe to create a home in the rich, fertile land of North Carolina. These active craftsmen and traders thrived, and became “the economic center of the North Carolina backcountry,” according to the Encyclopedia of North Carolina.

In 1849, the State Legislature split up Stokes County to create Forsyth County. Salem was in the center of the new county, but voters determined that the new county seat should be ‘in a town not named Salem.’ The Moravians sold 51.25 acres directly north of Salem, and the town of Winston was created.

Winston didn’t become the bustling trade center Salem was until after the Civil War, when the two towns were connected to the railroad. Entrepreneurs like R.J. Reynolds of the famed tobacco company and Pleasant Henderson Hanes, founder of HanesBrands (makers of Hanes underwear and the Wonderbra), flocked to the two cities, which were gradually becoming more and more intertwined as they grew.

Finally, in 1913, the cities of Winston and Salem merged. Under one government, bureaucratic processes could be streamlined. The towns could pool their resources to become more profitable and successful than either would have been on its own. Today, Winston-Salem is the fifth largest city in North Carolina. Winston-Salem is the home or birthplace of countless major companies, including Krispy Kreme, Piedmont Airlines (now US Airways), BB&T, and others.

Smallpox Strikes!

What was it like living in Winston or Salem before they became what they are today? The Moravians were meticulous note-takers, so we have excellent records of the townspeople’s everyday lives. One constant fear underlies most of the meeting minutes – smallpox. In 1861, the commissioners of Salem learned that a smallpox victim may have come from Stokes County, and passed an ordinance decreeing that anyone who had smallpox or was exposed to it could not enter the town. However, some people refused to be vaccinated, causing a small outbreak in 1864.

In 1866, there was a bigger outbreak at the Salem Female Academy, which is now called Salem College and is the oldest women’s college in the nation by founding date. Although the President of the Board of Trustees insisted it was merely chicken pox, a team of physicians determined that it was indeed smallpox. At the request of several citizens, every house where anyone was affected by smallpox had to fly a red flag.

In 1900, there was another smallpox outbreak in a row of tenement houses, which were put under guard and quarantine. Since the earlier law requiring vaccination was obviously not being followed, the Board of Commissioners approved a resolution that “No children will be admitted into any of the schools in town unless they can show proper evidences of a successful vaccination.” After a 1902 outbreak, the town agreed to pay for the vaccinations, and another ordinance was passed requiring vaccination for anyone conducting business in the town. As outbreaks and epidemics occurred, the towns created “pest houses” to quarantine the smallpox patients.


The idea of mandatory vaccination has been around for hundreds of years, and (as evidenced by the persistence of the disease in Winston-Salem after the first law was created) anti-vaccination leagues have existed just as long. In the case of smallpox, it was perhaps understandable. Vaccination was a new idea, and the creator of the smallpox vaccine, Edward Jenner, was proposing to infect children with lymph from a cowpox blister.

Parents were skeptical for many reasons; the vaccination involved scoring the flesh of the child’s arm, and some clergymen believed that the animal-derived vaccine was “unchristian.” In 1879, the Anti Vaccination Society of America was formed, shortly followed by the New England Anti Compulsory Vaccination League and the Anti-vaccination League of New York City. In 1905, though, the Supreme Court ruled that states could enact compulsory laws to protect the public in the event of a communicable disease.

Lately, the anti-vaccination movement has regained steam, putting Americans (including members of the Winston-Salem community) at risk. Experts say that we should require vaccinations just like we require seat belts. You don’t have to worry about smallpox anymore, but measles, whooping cough, and other communicable diseases are making a comeback. If you or your children need to get vaccinated, come to FastMed Urgent Care. There are three convenient locations in Winston-SalemOld Country Club Road, South Stratford Road, and our newest facility on University Parkway. We’re proud to do our part to keep you – and the community – safe and healthy.