The year was 1793 and the summer air was hot and dry in Philadelphia. Washington was still taking shape at this time, so Philly was the largest city in the nation with over 50,000 residents. At this time, however, our country was divided. War raged overseas with the French fighting Spain, Great Britain, and Austria, and though Washington remained neutral, there were a lot of citizens that felt we should be fighting the French too. But before tensions got too high, the Yellow Fever epidemic hit, and deadly terror ensued. Let’s look at some chilling facts about the epidemic that took the lives of so many.
Yellow Fever tends to follow a certain pattern where the person infected first experiences fever and chills, then seems to recover, but unfortunately, it’s never a recovery that comes next. After somewhat of remission, the patient will notice their skin starting to turn a putrid shade of yellow, then falls into what appears to be some sort of trance, next comes the black vomit, incontinence, and lastly, death. While there does exist a vaccine today, Yellow Fever still kills thousands of people each year.
We know now that it’s mosquitos that can carry and transmit the disease, but at the time people in Philadelphia blamed French refugees that were fleeing the country. The thing is, a lot was happening in Philly at this time, not only was the city experiencing an influx of people, but the city itself was hot and damp, as well as surrounded by marshes and swamps, and as if that wasn’t enough, those living in the city would dispose of their, uhm, waste, by way of holes in the ground which also captured rain runoff, and people themselves collected rainwater in barrels that just sat around. All of these variables worked together to create the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes on mosquitoes which meant the disease was running rampant and the citizens were unknowingly encouraging it.
Several remedies were thought to combat the fever such as cleaning your entire home with vinegar, covering the floors with dirt, chewing garlic, and lighting bonfires were just a few of many. And you’ll be shocked to learn that these things did not work.
The political powers and wealthy folks of Philadelphia jumped ship. And fast. Which left only the middle-class, the poor, and physicians left to deal with the epidemic.
Benjamin Rush took an interesting approach to caring for patients with Yellow Fever. He mistakenly thought humans had twice as much blood as they actually did, and he felt that purging the blood with heavy doses of mercury should do the trick. Unfortunately, this just turned the teeth and mouths of people black.