Tuesday, January 21, 2014

1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic

My sister-in-law's 3rd cousin six times removed was St. George Tucker (1752-1827). He married Frances (Bland) Randolph, the widow of John Randolph. One of Tucker's step-sons, John Randolph of Roanoke, and his friend and distant relative, Joseph Bryan, were living together in Philadelphia in 1793 where they studied law under Edmund Randolph. St. George Tucker felt it was important for his children and step-children to have careers in either law or medicine as he did not believe the great plantations of Virginia would be economically viable much longer.

John Randolph of Roanoke (1773-1833)
While John Randolph of Roanoke was in Philadelphia the first major yellow fever epidemic hit the city in July 1793, a hot and humid summer with more than the usual number of mosquitos. The disease tore through the city like wildfire, claiming the lives of one-sixth of the population. An estimated 20,000 people fled the city, including President George Washington, who left on September 10 on his previously scheduled vacation. Children often suffered a milder case of the fever while their parents died, leaving many orphans which the city was unprepared to handle.

Arch Street Wharf and Ferry, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The first cluster of cases appeared at the Arch Street wharf, leading many, including Dr. Benjamin Rush[1], to conclude yellow fever was caused by unsanitary conditions around the docks, open sewers, and rotting vegetables. He also recognized weather played a part in the epidemic. The stagnant water, where mosquitos bred, froze over in mid- to late October, and greatly decreased incidence of the disease. Dr. Rush treated his yellow fever patients by blood leeching and purging, using a mercury compound. Later, he wrote an account of the 1793 epidemic, and described the symptoms and course of the disease. He also posited his thoughts on cures and causes.

An Account of Bilious remitting Yellow Fever as It Appeared in the City of Philadelphia in the Year 1793 by Dr. Benjamin Rush.

Philadelphia mayor, Matthew Clarkson, organized the city's response and established a committee to deal with the chaotic situation. They reorganized the fever hospitals, arranged to visit the sick, fed those unable to care for themselves, arranged wagons to carry the sick to hospitals and the dead to Potter's field, and they identified shelters for orphans. Aggressive attempts were made to improve the city's sanitary condition. In 1799, Benjamin Latrobe was hired to design and construct the first water system in the United States. Ironically, Latrobe died of yellow fever in 1820 while constructing a waterworks for New Orleans.

Carlos Finlay, a Cuban doctor, first proposed yellow fever might be transmitted by mosquitos in 1881. Since the losses from yellow fever were extremely high during the Spanish-American War in the 1890s, Army doctors began to experiment with a team led by Walter Reed. They were able to successfully prove Dr. Finlay's "mosquito hypothesis." Using methods first suggested by Dr. Finlay, the U.S. government was able to eradicate yellow fever from Cuba and later Panama, which allowed the completion of the Panama Canal after the French had abandoned the project in large part due to the decimation of their workers by yellow fever.

[1] Benjamin Rush was the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence, the surgeon general of the Continental Army, founder of Dickinson College, doctor, writer, educator, and humanitarian.

For more information about the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, Penn State University has made this article available online. This post was a joy to write as I was able to pull out some of my old micro-history books on Yellow Fever and the building of the Panama Canal. Yes, my tastes in reading material are a bit quirky!

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