Behind The Scenes

The Horror of Smallpox! Disease and Film Noir

Diamond smuggling! Disease! Murder! These and more are the subject of the 1950 film noir The Killer That Stalked New York. The film follows Shelia Bennet, one of a diamond-smuggling couple who contracts the deadly disease in Cuba, and brings it to the city, slowly infecting everyone she encounters. Smallpox cases start popping up around the city, inducing mass panic when the city runs out of serum for it’s mandatory vaccinations. Eventually, Bennet gives herself up, telling the authorities who she has come in contact with.

The film is based on the real-life story of the 1947 smallpox scare in New York City. An American businessman returning from Mexico was the first to die from the disease, though he was misdiagnosed as having bronchitis. Two others were diagnosed as having smallpox soon after, and all who came in contact with them were required to be vaccinated.

The New York City Health Commissioner recommended vaccination to all New Yorkers, and the city provided vaccines for free across the city. Through propaganda and public education the program became incredibly effective, all without encroaching on personal civil liberties, which wouldn’t have been the case had the city instituted mandatory vaccination. Over six million New Yorkers were immunized within a few weeks; according to CNN, “Doctors immunized residents at a rate of eight injections per minute  500,000 in one day. The feared smallpox epidemic was averted.” The last naturally-occurring case of smallpox was in 1977.

Learn about the history of vaccination and more in BE SURE! BE SAFE! GET VACCINATED! Smallpox, Vaccination and Civil Liberties in New York, open May 15.

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