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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

Yellow fever actually has an interesting history within America. There had been early reports in the 1600s of Yellow Fever in the coastal areas of Central America and it actually got the name Yellow Fever in BARBADOS. Yellow Fever or as the Spanish speaking countries called it “Black Vomit” is thought to have originated in Spain and it could have been passed by the Spanish or even pirates such as Sir Francis Drake to the Native Americans. Due to all of the military expeditions throughout the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries, yellow fever spread fast, and it seemed to come in waves leaving thousands of dead.

In 1791 the French were called to put down a slave revolt in St. Domingue which is today’s Haiti. As the Europeans came over, it became the perfect breeding ground for yellow fever because they had no immunity to this disease. The French failed their mission and as a result, many fled to North America in fear of execution and if they chose to return to France which was in a revolution they could have been guillotined. Many on these ships to the United States were infected and they spread the disease to the various seaports, but nothing compared to Philadelphia.

In 1793 the Capital of the United States was Philadelphia. It’s where people migrated to, it was a great trading place, Philadelphia was the place to be. The summer of 1793 had been one of the hottest summers which made it the perfect catalyst for the fever. On August 19, 1793, the first fatality of Yellow Fever, Peter Aston, sparked people's interest. Doctors just thought it was a normal illness, but Doctor Benjamin Rush identified it as Yellow Fever.

When the disease spread throughout the city, it was like a wildfire. Victims of the disease were experiencing color changes including yellow eyes and skin, purple blotches under the skin from internal bleeding and hemorrhages, and black stools and vomit, all of which were accompanied by a high fever. The yellow came from their livers which were failing. It’s a compound called bilirubin that helps with digestion but when the liver is failing it goes into the bloodstream causing the skin and eyes to turn yellow.

In the first stage of the disease, people felt nauseous and tired, felt horrific pains all around their body, and then either got better or went into the second stage. In the second stage, they enter the period of intoxication where everything turns yellow, they start bleeding out parts of their body, and toxins build in the body and start to mess with the brain turning people delirious or mad.

People had different theories about where yellow fever came from. Was it through the seaports? Was it through wells that were contaminated by outhouses? No one knew and it just kept spreading throughout the city. Many people in Philadelphia left the city to escape the sickness. The state house which was home to the State and Federal government was closed. On his way out from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon, George Washington laid the Cornerstone of the new national capital in Washington D.C which was more bad news for Philadelphia. All political authority had left the city.

Doctors became the new authority. Many argued about the causes and solutions. At the center of the debate was America's leading physician Benjamin Rush. When he was urged to leave, Rush said, “I have resolved to stick to my principles, my practice, and my patients to the last extremity.” His theory was that it was unsanitary conditions and bad air that was the cause of yellow fever, and it was coming from rotting shipments from the ports. Another physician William Currie disagreed and said it was coming from the ports, but it was coming from the French refugees. This disagreement was just one of many. There was a national debate about immigration, slavery, banking, foreign policy, and now about yellow fever.

William Currie believed that the best treatment was a good diet, bed rest, and taking care of yourself. Benjamin Rush however took a more aggressive approach. He believed in blood letting people to drain the body of bad fluids. There was quite a lot of backlash from this and if you want to see that, check out that video “here.”

Benjamin Rush treated a hundred people a day, but he couldn't do it alone. Philadelphia had the largest free black community in the United States and Benjamin Rush worked closely with Richard Allen, an African American leader in the community to try to solve this problem. This was seen as an opportunity to unite and equalize people.

They went door to door helping those that had fallen ill and sadly there were many.

The mayor of Philadelphia Matthew Clarkson stayed in Philadelphia and formed a committee of volunteers. One of the volunteers had been Stephan Gerrard who was a brilliant businessman. Gerrard took control of Bush Hill which was a hospital that had a horrible reputation.

People knew that if you went there, it was a death sentence. Gerrard took 10 days and reorganized the hospital. He had prior experience with yellow fever having been in the Caribbean where the Yellow Fever hit. Gerrard took care of the business of the hospital while working as a nurse.

In Mid-October the first frost came, and the panic was over. The city would be scared by the epidemic. Throughout the city there would be widows, widowers, and orphans. In a city of 50,000, 5000 people died from yellow fever. Dolly Madison, the future wife of President James Madison, lost her first husband John Todd and her son William to the disease.

People that stayed like Benjamin Rush and Stephan Gerrard actually got the disease but continued to help others.

This epidemic shed a light on the unsanitary conditions of Philadelphia and there were aggressive attempts made to clean up the city. Even though this was a tragedy, it showed the true strength of humanity. People worked together to fix the problem. While many left, many did stay to tend to the sick, risking their own lives. As a nation we have been through bad times with pandemics, but we always have hope.

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