History News: Leon Banov, Natural Disasters, & Vaccines by Mateo Mérida

History News: Leon Banov, Natural Disasters, & Vaccines by Mateo Mérida

As the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in Western countries is beginning to come within clear view, despite the clear and obvious benefit they offer the world as a whole, vaccines have managed to become a controversial and hot button issue. Movements such as that which has been called “The Freedom Convoy” by some is a protest that is the direct result of Canadian vaccine requirements. Ignoring the fact that as much as 90% of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, some of that remaining 10% have started a movement to jeopardize the progress vaccines have made. Charleston—by no means untouched by the unwarranted discourse of vaccine viability—has a moment in the county’s history which showcases precisely how vital vaccinations are not just for individuals, but for the health and wellbeing of the entire community.1


Early one morning in Charleston, SC, on September 29th, 1938, Joseph H. McGee, like many other children, was getting ready for school. After going downstairs to eat breakfast, he went back upstairs to brush his teeth, and was unsettled by a deafeningly loud sound, which he first thought was a big truck and then considered maybe an airplane taking off. Out of confusion and excitement, he looked out the window, and his eyes were immediately stung with a flurry of dirt and dust. Next thing McGee knew, his mother was yelling about her garden bed being ruined, only for his father to reply “‘Your garden is ruined? Look out the window, Thead Cheshire’s house is ruined!’”2


McGee would later come to realize that three simultaneous tornadoes had ripped through the Charleston area. One of the areas most impacted was on Market street, which saw ample flooding, and buildings totally leveled. Even St. Michael’s Cathedral saw substantial damages, taking off the roof in some sections of the church.


Despite the damages to the church and Market Street, families were devastated. One figure describes that as many as 300 homes were condemned, and there was as much as $6 million in damages, or $119 million in today’s currency.3

In the days following the disaster, the immediate concern was not the damages themselves, but potential epidemics. As tornadoes leveled buildings across Charleston, the flying debris also cut survivors with loose wood, glass, and metal beams. By result, tetanus, which spreads from contaminated surfaces (not from person to person), created anxiety among medical professionals and city leaders. This was coupled with another separate consideration of the tornado creating possible water contamination, which could mean a correlating epidemic of typhoid. Leon Banov (born and raised in Charleston by a Russian immigrant father of the same name) held two very prominent roles in the Charleston medical community as the First Public Health Officer and as the Vice President for the Red Cross branch for Charleston.4 In order to get ahead of these potential epidemics, Banov organized several vaccination clinics across the Charleston area. As early as October 5th, Banov had established a vaccine clinic at Roper Hospital to administer inoculation shots for tetanus from 9am to 5pm.5

While the entire city felt the impact of the tornados, the impact of the disaster was not felt evenly, however, as 85% of these considered refugees were African American families, which accounted for some 100 displaced families, and 450 individuals. As money continued to pour in to rebuild the city, through fundraisers locally and in cities like St. Louis, the primary focus was finding places for these families to stay in the meantime.6


Many of these families were temporarily allotted shelter in places such as the Shaw school building. Nonetheless, while the Red Cross was acting as quickly as possible, it was getting bogged down in the sheer volume of people in need. With there being as many as 2720 in need of aid by mid-October, the Red Cross could only finish roughly 100 individual cases a week.7

The Red Cross certainly had its hands full assisting Black families financially, vaccinations were one of the most important and immediate services available in recovering from the tornados. After shifting focus from the tetanus vaccines, Banov also organized more vaccine clinics for typhoid, starting at 4 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, changing locations across the Charleston area daily. Some of the locations included James Simmons Elementary School, Burke Industrial School, and Trinity AME Church.8

The uneven impact of these tornados among African Americans is subtly reflected in the clinics themselves, as they were segregated. The clinics at James Simmons and Burke were operational at the same time, however Simmons catered to white patients, while Burke catered to Black patients. While there are three locations during the week which are listed in an article in an article in the Charleston News and Courier for serving white patients, four other locations were intended to serve Black patients, while one was not listed as catering to either/or ethnic group.9


These vaccination clinics were an incredible success. Charleston had successfully negated any potential epidemics and had relegated the worst of the tornados’ damages to the tornados themselves. By late November of that year, any discourse of typhoid became completely obscure and unfocused to an outbreak in the Lowcountry.10

What Leon Banov and the Charleston Red Cross realized was that the best way to prevent the spread of disease was to encourage the population to get vaccinated as quickly and as widely as possible. Even in a time of legal apartheid in Charleston, the city’s medical professionals understood that exposure to disease for some meant the potential to spread disease to all. As a result, Charleston’s tornados of 1938—and their high potential for the spread of fatal diseases—have become a distant memory in the minds of Charlestonians.


Charleston, like the rest of the United States, has moved quickly to treat the pandemic as over, which certainly would be very close, but, if any person chooses not to get vaccinated, then they pose a biological danger to their whole community, as a new variant like Omicron is destined to develop in just such a circumstance. Vaccines save lives: they did in the 1930’s, and they are the difference between spending summer of ‘22 indoors, or in barbecues with family and friends.


Source Citations

  1. Fung, Catherine. “Canadian ‘Freedom’ Truckers Protest Vaccines as 90 Percent of Drivers Vaccinated.” Newsweek. Jan. 28, 2022. https://www.newsweek.com/canadian-freedom-truckers-protest-vaccines-90-percent-drivers-vaccinated-1674109
  2. McGee, Joseph H. “Interview with Joseph H. McGee.” Historic Charleston Oral History Project. Historic Charleston Foundation: Charleston, SC. Digitized Dec. 22, 2017. Accessed Feb. 18, 2022. pp. 6. https://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:129254
  3. “Fishburne Street House After the 1938 Tornado.” 1938 Tornado Photograph Collection. Historic Charleston Foundation: Charleston, SC. Digitized April 26, 2016. Accessed Feb. 18, 2022. https://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:100973.
  4. During World War 1, there was a “Colored” Red Cross that addressed various needs in the Charleston Black community, however, by the time of the tornado crisis, it appears to have gone out of practice, as it is Banov’s Red Cross that seems to address the housing and vaccination needs of the entire Charleston community. Moore, John Hammond. “Charleston in World War I: Seeds of Change.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine. Jan., 1985. Vol. 86, no. 1. pp. 39-49. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27567883
  5. “Red Cross Given U.S. Food Stocks.” Charleston News and Courier: Charleston, SC. October 5, 1938. Pp 14.
  6. The article is not clear as to whether or not these 450 are accounted for by the 100 families, or if they are individual people not included in families. It is likely, however, that the 450 is a combination of members of families, with a handful of single individuals as well. “Relief for Negro Refugees Mapped.” Charleston News and Courier: Charleston, SC. October 7, 1938. pp 12.
  7. “Shaw to House 60 of Refugees.” Charleston News and Courier: Charleston, SC. October 15, 1938. Pp. 8.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. “School Continues Work of Savants.” Charleston News and Courier: Charleston, SC. November 27, 1938. pp 2.

Image Credits

  1. “St. Michael’s Church After the 1938 Tornado.” 1938 Photograph Collection. Historic Charleston Foundation: Charleston, SC. Digitized April 26, 2016. Accessed Feb. 18, 2022. https://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:100970.
  2. “Fiddlers Green Dwellings After the 1938 Tornado.” 1938 Tornado Photograph Collection. Historic Charleston Foundation: Charleston, SC. Digitized April 26, 2016. Accessed Feb. 18, 2022. https://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:100972.
  3. “Dr. Leon Banov (First Public Health Officer) Giving Inoculations Following Hurricane 1938.” Avery Photo Collection. “Lowcountry Life Health,” folder 100-6. Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston: Charleston, SC.
  4. “Children Being Registered for Inoculations – 1938.” Avery Photo Collection. “Lowcountry Life Health,” folder 100-6. Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston: Charleston, SC.

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