Native Measles Epidemic Letters

Original content by: Melissa Stanley

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About This Document

Vilhjalmur Stefansson was an artic explorer and ethnologist living with Inuits in Alaska and northern Canada during the early 1900s.  These letters to a Dr. North address his understanding of the measles epidemic, which broke out in the Mackenzie district in 1900.  They offer a unique insight the understanding of epidemics, arctic exploration, and anthropology of that time. Steffansson's accounts of the epidemic mortality rates are based on enthnographic interviews he conducted for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. 

Reading by Ryan Chalifour

Historical Context

At the onset of the 15th century, what historians refer to as the Age of Discovery began as geographic boundaries were challenged and stretched. The innate desire of humans to expand beyond restrictions of place led to an increase in oceanic exploration and expeditions of discovery. By the 20th century, oceanic exploration started to wane as the number of unexplored frontiers dwindled. The Arctic was one of the last global regions which remained largely unexplored. More...

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why would Arctic exploration be important in the early 1900s?
  2. From the letters, who do you think Dr. North could have been? Why could he have been in the Mackenzie District? Why might he write to Vilhjalmur Stefansson?
  3. Consider the "evolution against disease" theory. Explain how it compares with the modern understanding of antibodies and the immune system. Has the theory been proven or disproven since the time Stefansson was writing this letter?