Did the Smallpox Vaccine Kill the Real Marcella?

Note: Much of the information in this post about the illness and death of Marcella Gruelle is from  Chapter 10 of a very informative book about Johnny Gruelle titled “Johnny Gruelle, Creator of Raggedy Ann and Andy” by Patricia Hall. Other references will be otherwise noted.

Raggedy Ann was actually a symbol for the anti-vaccination movement in the early 20th century. Raggedy Ann’s creator Johnny Gruelle, created the character after the death of his daughter Marcella. Marcella was vaccinated for smallpox, but the school nurse said the vaccine didn’t “take” and gave Marcella a second vaccination without her parents’ consent. Over the next few months, Marcella became progressively sicker and finally died in 1915 at the age of 13. The loss was devastating to the Gruelle family.

Today, many people say that vaccination could not have killed Marcella. Most say it was an unfortunate occurrence, but hardly the result of vaccination. In fact the death certificate, states that the cause of death was valvular heart disease of several years’ duration with a secondary cause of edema lasting 90 days. One theory is that an infected needle gave Marcella an infection that took hold on her heart and that was the cause of death. (The medical name for this  condition is bacterial endocarditis.) I think it worth examining the information we do have about Marcella’s illness to see if another diagnosis could be possible.

One of the interesting things Patricia Hall’s book brings up is that ten days after Marcella’s second vaccination, she came home from school complaining of pains in her legs, one of the first symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS). After that, the disease quickly became so bad that Marcella had to stop going to school. This fits with rapid weakness and paralysis that accompanies GBS. And while heart disease is listed on the death certificate as the cause of death, GBS is known to cause cardiac and respiratory problems, even death from these complications.

The medical community has been trying to distance GBS from vaccination lately, but the fact remains that a strong association has existed since the 1976 flu vaccine was found to cause more cases of GBS than normal. In fact, almost every vaccine package carries warnings about GBS. So while we don’t have a complete picture of Marcella’s symptoms and early twentieth century medicine was little aware of the possibility of severe reactions from vaccination, it is possible the Guillain-Barre Syndrome from a vaccination killed Marcella Gruelle.


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