The Weekly History Thread is Contagious

Welcome to this week’s History Thread!

Today’s topic: Diseases and epidemics. However arrogant we humans are in assuming mastery over the natural world, we are still vulnerable as ever to diseases, from cancer and parasites to good ol’ fashioned plagues. You can discuss this topic through whatever prism you want: specific epidemics, histories of diseases and medical treatment, famous people killed by illnesses, etc.

Today’s picture: One of America’s worst epidemics is the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. The outbreak began in August 1793; there is some controversy about how the outbreak started, but the generally accepted explanation is that a group of French refugees from Haiti (then undergoing its war for independence) brought the disease along with them. Either way, the epidemic quickly ravaged the city, killing 5,000 people and infecting thousands more in a city of 50,000 people. (Among the more famous victims was Alexander Hamilton, visiting the city on government business when the outbreak hit; he nearly perished.) Some 20,000 people fled Philadelphia into the countryside, rendering it a grisly ghost town with scenes of death carts collecting corpses out of the Middle Ages.

Those not dying themselves tried to combat the disease, whether through quarantine or what relief medical science could provide. Benjamin Rush, the renowned doctor and educator, attempted to find a cure, but his efforts were misguided at best and dangerous at worst; he refused to believe mosquitoes caused yellow fever, and he advocated bleed-and-purge regimens involving mercury-laden pills that tended to kill the patients quicker than these disease would itself. Jean Deveze, a French physician from Haiti, had only moderately better luck curing people with excruciating blistering treatments. The city hospitals became so overloaded that freed black men and women were used as nurses, though they suffered as much as their white counterparts.

Finally, in October the deaths started tapering off after the first frost started killing the mosquitoes. Still, sporadic deaths continued well into November, and it took almost a year before the city’s exiles returned en masse.