The 1793 Terror: The Yellow Fever Epidemic

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Yellow Fever virus
Yellow fever virus
Have you ever heard of Yellow Fever? Different diseases affect human society to differing degrees. In the in the United States, one now seldom-mentioned illness severely threatened the existence of a major city with a populace approaching 50,000 (a sizeable number at the time). The famous Dr. Benjamin Rush called it Bilious Remitting Yellow Fever.

Nearly 10% of the city died. In fact, the Federal government itself, including George Washington, had to quickly relocate! Some cities refused to accept refugees.

The Time, The Place, The Cause

The time was approximately August of 1793, and for a while thereafter. The place was Philadelphia. The vector seems to have been the female Aedes aegypti mosquito. The infection originated possibly from Santo Domingo, as a result of persons fleeing North to the U.S. from a slave revolt (sugarcane laborers). Ships arrived at the Arch Street Ferry.

Yellow Fever mosquito

The thing is: no one knew mosquitoes were the cause. The cause was not known until many years afterward. Most interestingly, one group of persons were of significant help to those suffering. Who? Members of the F.A.S. – the Free African Society. These were mostly slaves freed following the Revolutionary War.

Yellow Fever: Those Dying

Yellow Fever arrival point.

The extreme mortality rate were responsible for penalties, such as fining those caught spitting in the streets. Families were ripped apart. In my own family, my 4x-greatgrandmother and her sister attended the sickbeds of their brothers.

The two strapping males, aged 19 and 24, both died – one at the beginning of the epidemic (August 1793), one at the end (November 1793, the mosquitoes dying in the October’s frost). I learned of these two deaths through a quick history of the illness written by Carey.

George Washington inauguration
Washington arriving at Congress Hall, Philadelphia, March 4, 1793.

In Memoriam

My umpteenth great-uncle was buried in Philadelphia’s Christ Church. His tombstone bears a very poetic inscription that well-illustrates the reason humans should be humble… It reads:

A span is all that we can boast,
An inch or two of time;
Man is vanity and dust
In all his flower and prime.
Now I forbid my carnal hopes,
My fond desires recall;
I give my mortal interest up,
And make my God, my all.

There is now a vaccine for the prevention of Yellow Fever. See CDC: Yellow Fever Vaccine.

Note: You might also enjoy Deciphering a Cryptic 1700s Philadelphia German Tombstone


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