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“moschetoes Were Uncommonly Numerous”
Yellow fever killed 4,000 in Philadelphia in 1793, amd puzzled doctors ignored the real clue to blame “miasmata” in the air
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
They burned fires in the streets (popularly regarded as an effective measure “to purify the air”) and when this was interdicted as being too hazardous they took to the no less perilous firing of guns—which also, needless to say, had to be forbidden. They observed the recommendations of the College of Physicians to an almost absurd degree and were constantly scouring and whitewashing their houses, which they hardly dared to leave. When they ventured into the streets they covered their noses and mouths with handkerchiefs or sponges soaked in vinegar or camphor, and they carried pieces of tar in their hands or pockets and often garlic in their shoes. They walked in the middle of the street in order to be as far away as possible from the houses which might harbor sick persons, and they assiduously avoided talking with anyone, even with close friends. If a hearse appeared in the distance, they turned and walked in another direction.
In their struggle for survival they became callous and heartless. Some parents abandoned their sick children, and persons complaining of a headache were olten forced to leave the house and were thrown out into the streets. Not a few persons who were simply indisposed were forcibly committed to the yellow fever hospital where they contracted the disease. The sick, abandoned by relatives who were afraid of becoming infected, were left to die unattended, and the dead were hurried out of the house and buried before they were cold.
Already mortally afraid of contracting the fever, people became further disturbed when they saw that the doctors could not agree on how to treat it. In search of an effectual method of treatment, all the usual remedies having failed, Dr. Rush had taken recourse to purging with calomel, which in the past had been nsed with apparent success. With characteristic enthusiasm he lelf that he had “at last arrested the fatality” of the epidemic, and he informed the College of Physicians that he had found a “cure” for the disease.
The majority of physicians disagreed, and their opposition to their eminent and sanguine colleague was further intensified by his subsequent, equally exuberant, advocacy of copious bleeding (he did not hesitate to bleed patients almost to the point of exhaustion). The controversy between Rush and his opponents was not only extremely acrimonious; it was, unfortunately, conducted publicly. Both factions repeatedly aired their views in the press, and thereby added greatly to the distress of the already sorely harassed laymen who did not know where to turn for medical help.
The death toll mounted unabated. Whole families were swept away. In the first three weeks of August, 1793, there were 160 burials in Philadelphia; from then to the middle of September almost 600; in the last two weeks of the month more than 1,000.
The exodus proceeded at an even more rapid pace; probably more than one-third of the 50,000 inhabitants fled the stricken city. Philadelphia, the most populous and prosperous metropolis in the United States, the capital of the young American republic, took on the aspect of a ghost town. Many houses and shops were deserted and boarded up. Traffic was almost nonexistent, and in the empty streets “the hearse alone kept up the remembrance of the noise of carriages or carts. … ”
All the city magistrates, with the exception of the mayor, deserted their posts: the governor had retired to the country because of illness; nearly all the state officers had gone; most, if not all, of the officers of the federal government were absent, and the President of the United States, “according to his annual custom, had removed to Mount Vernon.” Government was virtually at a standstill.
In the middle of September the mayor called a meeting to discuss measures for the care of the city’s indigent, whose situation was especially precarious. The meeting, to which the public at large had been invited, was poorly attended. But out of its deliberations there emerged a committee which gradually extended the scope of its activities to such an extent that it became the de facto city government.
The great burden was carried by the eighteen persons on this committee, who placed themselves entirely in the service of their fellow citizens. Their efforts were supported by the majority of the physicians, by many of the clergy, and by the elders of the African church, who marshalled the forces of their congregation, many of whose members rendered selfless service as nurses and gravediggers.
The situation continued to deteriorate. There was no letup in the spread of the lever and the death rate rose ever I aster. Two thousand persons perished in October. Business and commerce lagged, prices rose as provisions became scarce; the city was faced with the specter of famine. A spirit of utter despondency and fatalism took possession of even the staunchest. No ray of hope was anywhere discernible. How was it all going to end?
Was Philadelphia, in the eyes of the Reverend Heinrich Helmulh “by far the most luxurious and dissipated of North American cities,” not indeed experiencing a divine visitation? Were not its citizens receiving deserved punishment for their drunkenness and lewdness, their pride, avarice and uncharitableness, their fraudulence and their quarrelsomeness? Had they not, in their sinlulncss and frivolity, even legalized theatrical performances and imported from “luxurious” Europe no less than seventy to eighty actors and actresses and other stage people?