“Anyone who doesn’t believe in vaccines should look at this,” said Dr. Alan Stewart.
What Stewart, the county’s health officer, was referring to are pages and pages of Knox County death records dating back to the year 1892.
Looking at one random page, Stewart reveals that only five of the 30 listed on that page lived to see adulthood.
More commonly, the page showed deaths of children, typically lost to illnesses that have been mostly eradicated in the developed world: scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles and typhoid fever.
“You can see things where whole families were wiped out,” Stewart said. “Three or four kids from the same family. A whole neighborhood gone.”
The county’s health department is the official keeper of all vital records, including birth and death certificates.
Unfortunately many were nearly lost to the garbage heap years ago.
“Historically, many of (the records) were stored at the Daughters of the American Revolution,” Stewart said,
Though it’s unclear how it happened, many Knox County death records were removed from the DAR’s storage and thrown away many years ago.
However, someone found them, saved them, and they have since been housed at the Knox County Public Library.
When the Health Department’s Vital Records office moved to their current location at 305 S. Fifth St., they gained more storage space. So Stewart, who was appointed to the post last year, spoke with library director Emily Bunyan who happily returned the documents to their rightful home.
Kelly Phipps, the county’s director of vital records, points out that Knox County was the first county in the state to begin officially logging birth and death records in 1880.
“Until then, it was really only people keeping family history in Bibles,” she said. “I even have books that the state of Indiana doesn’t have because they didn’t start keeping records in Indianapolis until 1907.”
Phipps, who is also the vice president of the state’s Vital Records Association, says preservation of these records is important from both a genealogical perspective as well as a medical and communicable diseases viewpoint.
She finds that people often want to review the death records of family members to fill in gaps in their genealogy or to “search for certain types of diseases in their family to determine if something is heredity.”
And though birth records are not in the public domain, death records are, and the Health Department is happy to assist someone in their quest for more information.
The department is now diligently working to enter all of these records into a database, correcting errors in information, such as misspelled names, as they find them.
Stewart describes the undertaking as “really humbling” when he recalls how far medicine has advanced in the past hundred years.
At the turn of the 20th century, “most kids did not grow up to adulthood having both parents alive,” he said.
“That’s frightening to think about,” Stewart said. “But many of those diseases, we just don’t see anymore because of immunizations.”
Stewart said such diseases could return with a lack of immunization.
“Until a disease is no longer present in the world, we have to continue to immunize,” he said.