Calamity Jane & Smallpox in the Wild West

Profiles in Nursing

Calamity Jane & Smallpox in the Wild West

Martha Jane Cannary, AKA Calamity Jane (1852?-1903)

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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It may be difficult to believe today, but at one time, nurses suffered a dubious reputation. While the nuns who founded nursing orders and hospitals may have been seen as ministering angels, lay nursing was seldom considered a respectable profession — particularly as practiced by nurses as wild and generally unreliable as Martha Jane Cannary, better known as Calamity Jane.  

Hellion With a Heart of Gold  
Hard facts about the life of Calamity Jane aren’t easy to come by. Her fabrications (and the many legends that have grown up around her) have made it almost impossible for even the most diligent researchers to ferret out the truth. Was she married to Wild Bill Hickok? Did she have his child? Did she have a child at all? No one really knows for sure.

Calamity was probably born in Missouri around 1852. As a child, she survived an episode of smallpox that apparently left her immune to the lethal disease. Her survival was perhaps the only good thing that occurred in her childhood, which featured frequent moves, the early deaths of her feckless parents and ensuing responsibility for (by some accounts) as many as six younger siblings. With an upbringing like that, it’s no wonder that Calamity developed into an unruly, undisciplined hell-raiser who drank heavily and was usually penniless. If she did not engage in prostitution, as some biographers have claimed, she probably skirted close to it.

Whatever her faults, it’s generally agreed that she was kind, attentive and willing to nurse anyone — not a bad recommendation. Several accounts report her nursing the sick during various typhoid eruptions and a black diphtheria outbreak in Green River, Wyo. However, her greatest nursing-related fame followed the deadly 1878 outbreak of smallpox in Deadwood, S.D.  

The Smallpox Menace  
Medicine on the frontier was spotty at best. Most doctors were poorly educated and poorly equipped. The most common tools in the doctor’s kit were calomel (a laxative that could destroy teeth and gums), castor oil and a variety of popular patent medicines consisting mostly of alcohol and/or narcotics like cocaine. Nurses were whoever would do the work.

Few scientists and even fewer doctors in those days understood microorganisms, refrigeration, sterilization or antiseptics. Infectious disease could easily take hold in populations already weakened by grinding poverty, poor-quality food, nutritional deficiencies and unrecognized occupational diseases. Surviving a serious injury or illness depended as much on luck as anything else.

Smallpox was no exception. At that time, smallpox, known as the “speckled monster,” was one of the deadliest and most contagious of all known diseases, with a mortality rate of 30 to 60 percent. (As recently as the 1960s, smallpox killed as many as 2 million people a year.) Those who survived often suffered blindness and horrific scarring.

Care for smallpox was supportive rather than curative. Inoculation (known as variolation) — then practiced on the East Coast and in other parts of the world, but seldom available in the western states — provided some protection, but no effective treatment was ever discovered before the disease was finally eradicated in the 1970s.

A Perfect Angel
During the smallpox outbreak in Deadwood, the story is that Calamity Jane single-handedly cared for eight gold-miners. She had no training or qualifications for this role other than compassion and her childhood immunity to the disease, but she was so dedicated that one writer said she even “dropped all her vices and spent day and night nursing.” One witness remembered her as “a perfect angel sent from heaven when any of the boys was sick.”

The conditions were extremely harsh. In the rough mining town of Deadwood, the sick were isolated in filthy tents or shacks on White Rock Mountain without running water or sanitary provisions of any kind. The only things Calamity had to work with to soothe and tend her patients were herbs, Epsom salts and cream of tartar.

According to author Dale L. Walker, former president of Western Writers of America, Jane fought for fresh water for her patients, commandeered groceries from the general store and settled at least one payment dispute at gunpoint. When several of her charges succumbed to the disease, she buried them with the only prayer she knew: “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

Despite these limitations, five of her patients survived the ordeal. The town doctor, L.E. “Old Man” Babcock, believed that without Calamity’s care, none of the eight would have survived. It was rare praise from Babcock, who usually regarded Calamity as unkempt, overly impulsive and manly. “Oh, she’d swear to beat hell at ‘em,” he said, “but it was a tender kind of cussin’.”

Unregistered, unlicensed, possessing only rudimentary skills and a big heart, Calamity Jane — whose life was otherwise a “train wreck” — exemplified what is best about nursing: care for others and ferocious patient advocacy.   

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN, is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.


How did Martha Jane Cannary become Calamity Jane?

In The Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane as Told by Herself, Martha Jane Cannary Burk wrote that she received her famous nickname from a Capt. Egan, a cavalry officer whose life she saved during an 1873 battle. After Egan was shot, Jane rode to his rescue just in time to prevent him from falling off his horse. Afterward, Egan dubbed her “Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.” As with many of Calamity’s anecdotes, there is no real evidence as to whether this actually happened or not, but it makes for a good story.


The Legacy of Smallpox
by Aaron Severson

Many people over the age of 45 still bear the distinctive scars of smallpox vaccination, which for centuries was the only reliable protection against a disease that has plagued humanity for more than 3,000 years. Also known as variola, smallpox is a contagious viral infection. The disease presents in the form of a rash, which then becomes raised, fluid-filled pustules. If the patient survives, the pustules scab over and typically leave permanent scars.

Smallpox is not quite as contagious as popular fiction often implies and is not necessarily lethal, although some strains are deadlier than others. However, the historical fatality rate was often 30 percent or more. Smallpox had a particularly devastating effect in the Americas, where the disease was first introduced by European explorers and colonists in the late 15th century.

Inoculation, or “variolation,” was not adopted in Europe until the 1700s, but had been practiced well before that in China, the Ottoman Empire and some parts of Africa. Variolation was not 100 percent effective and could have serious side effects, but widespread vaccination programs eventually led to the eradication of smallpox by 1980. Today, only a few closely guarded samples of the disease remain, but there is still no cure.

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