While COVID-19 is something entirely new, Billings history has seen plenty of infectious outbreaks of diseases in the past — and that’s the subject of a new exhibit at the Western Heritage Center.
The exhibit is called "Conquering Diseases of the Past."
“We’ve highlighted five historic that Billings really struggled with. These include smallpox, polio, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and the flu of 1918,” says Western Heritage Center Community historian Lauren Hunley.
Hunley says they had been considering the exhibit for 2020 when a disease of the present, COVID-19, hit shutting everything down.
“This is a really amazing opportunity for us to tell these unique stories that have some real interesting and exciting connections and relevancy to what we are living with today but to also pull in those components and connections that people may not be aware of or to see things that people may have never seen before,” said Hunley.
Some of those things include an iron lung that was used during the polio outbreak, an X-ray machine to diagnose those who had tuberculosis, and the hospital register from St. Vincent's Hospital when the 1918 flu pandemic filled the hospital, as well as pictures and posters from the past.
Hunley says the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was especially hard on Billings.
“The actual hospital administration register from November of 1918, which is when the flu of 1918 really hit Billings, when the first wave really hit and it basically works out that every other admission to the hospital was for the flu,” she says.
Like today, there was also controversy over vaccinations and how to combat some of these diseases.
“There were huge anti-vaccination efforts in the 1890s and early 1900s specifically with smallpox, but then you compare that and contrast that when the polio vaccine came out in the 1950s, Montana students actually stepped up to be test subjects. They were called the Montana Polio Pioneers and they were the very first kids to receive the polio vaccination.”
The "Conquering Diseases of the Past" exhibit will be on display through June, but you have a chance to see it and the rest of the museum at no cost this Friday and Saturday as the Western Heritage Center holds two free admission days as a way of saying thank you to the community for its support.